The late Madame Marie of Asbury Park would have tried to convince you that tarot cards and tea leaves provided a degree of insight into the future of all things, including the stock market. Personally, I would suggest you use data related to the health of the economy instead.
While not perfectly correlated, the economy and the financial markets are intertwined, meaning the economy’s cyclic behavior will play a key role in determining a successful investment strategy.
Data regarding the economy's health is not hard to obtain. We are continually bombarded with a prodigious stream of economic news, reports and statistics. The problem is to distil from the torrent the information that is salient to making profitable investment decisions.
Investors often use so-called “expert opinion” to capsulize economic information. However, it should come as no surprise that the experts often have a self-serving motive. While these economists often have impeccable credentials, they also understand where their employers' profits are coming from.
Government economists are in a similar position. They are charged with advising an administration on economic matters. Should they then be faulted for defending the administration's resulting economic programs and policies? As an investor, you are probably best advised to view such opinions with a degree of skepticism, while at the same time balancing them with your own personal judgment in assessing what various economic indicators portend.
Consider, for example, the dollar’s current strength. Dollars are worth more in the world market in terms of other currencies. For the American consumer, a strong dollar means that imported goods become cheaper. At the same time, it reduces the demand for our domestically produced goods because it makes them more expensive to foreign buyers.
When selecting any economic indicator, be sure to keep in mind the four key attributes: relevancy, timeliness, availability and stability. For example, the most widely watched indicator for measuring inflation is the Consumer Price Index.
Every month, the Labor Department samples the prices of items that make up a representative basket of goods. A change in the prices of these goods will move this number up or down. When a more advanced warning of inflation is required, the Producer Price Index is often used, because it measures prices at the wholesale level.
Another indicator of importance is sales of new single-family homes. Sales in December 2016 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 536,000 units. This is 10.4 percent below the revised November rate of 598,000 units and is 0.4 percent below the December 2015 estimate of 538,000.
Nonetheless, housing is being supported by a tightening labor market, which is lifting wages and bolstering household formation. A strong housing market should also help protect the economy as the country navigates rough seas caused by the robust dollar, spending cuts by energy firms hurt by lower oil prices and sluggish global demand.
The various statistics that track the nation's employment are also significant, especially weekly jobless claims. Lower claims indicate increased economic activity.
Finally, consider the real gross domestic product, which increased at an annual rate of 3.5 percent during the third quarter of 2016 and is estimated to have increased by 1.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016. My estimate is that real GDP will exceed 2 percent during the first quarter of this year and will help stabilize and stimulate the equity markets.
There are many other statistics that come at you from all directions. Key among these are the consumer confidence surveys. Plus, three times a month, the automakers post their sales. Then there are numbers on mortgage applications, building permits, factory output — the list goes on and on.
Coming to grips with the basic economic indicators will increase your understanding of both business cycles and the economy and, more importantly, will enable you to become a more successful investor.
Lauren Rudd is president of Rudd International, an asset management firm. Neither Lauren Rudd nor his employees hold any shares discussed or have plans to buy them within 30 days, nor is there any intended inducement to buy or sell any security. You can write to Lauren Rudd at LVERudd@aol.com or call him at 941-706-3449. For back columns, go to www.ruddreport.com. Lauren Rudd offers commentary Thursdays on SNN News 6 during the 5:30 p.m. live newscast.