What Lagging Economic Indicators Tell You

3 to Watch Right Now

cargo ship
The Dow Jones Transportation Index is a lagging indicator. Photo: Getty Images

Definition: Lagging indicators are statistics that follow an economic event. You use them to confirm what has recently happened in the economy and establish a trend. That makes them especially useful for identify turning points in the business cycle.

The best way to use lagging indicators is in conjunction with the two other types. The first are leading indicators. These include stock prices, manufacturers' orders for durable goods, and interest rates.

They predict new phases in the business cycle. For more, see Causes of the Business Cycle.

You should also look at coincident indicators, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment. They tell you what is happening right now.

Most people don't bother looking at lagging indicators. That's a mistake. They help you make sure you are reading the trends right. That way you'll know that the economy has headed into a recession and when it's over.

Top 3 Lagging Indicators to Watch

The Dow Jones Transportation Average is a useful lagging indicator. That's because it tracks the stock performance of companies that ship our nation's goods. Once manufacturers fill the durable goods orders, they have to ship it to customers. There's a lag between the order and the shipments. If the Transportation Index rises, it means customers haven't canceled their orders. That confirms the movements of the Durable Goods Orders Report, a leading economic indicator.

Unemployment is a lagging indicator. Once people start to lose their jobs, the economy has already begun declining. That's because the last thing employers want to do is let people go. Unemployment will also continue to rise even after the economy has started to improve. That's because companies wait until they believe the economy has recovered before they start hiring again.

Another lagging indicator is the Consumer Confidence Index. That's because most people don’t feel that the economy has changed until after it already has. People base their feelings about the economy on how easy it is to find jobs. Usually, it doesn't become difficult to find work until after the economy has turned negative.

Index 

The U.S. Conference Board established the Index of Lagging Indicators for the federal government. This a non-profit agency publishes the Index monthly. It weights seven lagging indicators to create the index. The Board used the indicators established by The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Its research identified them as the ones that best confirmed business cycle phases.

List

Here's a list of the Conference Board's indicators. It's the most comprehensive list of useful indicators that economists follow. A quick summary explains why each is useful, and its weight in the Index.

  1. Average Duration of Unemployment. The number of weeks those counted as unemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have been looking for a job. During a recession, the number of long-term unemployed will increase. Weight = 0.0361
  2. Inventories to Sales Ratio. The Bureau of Economic Analysis calculates this for manufacturing, wholesale, and retail companies. During a recession, inventories rise as sales decline. Weight = 0.1211
  1. Change in Labor Cost per unit of Manufacturing Output. This number increases when factories produce far less per employee, due to slower orders. The only way to reduce this number is to lay off workers or produce more. Weight = 0.0587
  2. Average Prime RateWhen times are good, banks resist lowering rates (and their profits) even if business starts to slow. When times are bad, they resist raising rates until they are sure the demand supports it. Weight = 0.2815.
  3. Commercial and Industrial Loans. his is a lagging indicator because banks still have a lot of loans in the pipeline even after a recession starts. Similarly, businesses that are losing revenue in the beginning stages of a recession will take out loans to cover costs. Once the economy begins to improve, it takes a while before banks have enough liquidity to start lending again. Weight = 0.0970.
  1. Consumer Debt to Income Ratio. Consumer debt statistics are compiled by the Federal Reserve. Personal income is reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. After a recession, consumers cautiously hold off accumulating debt even though their income starts to rise. Conversely, they will borrow more during a recession to pay bills when they get laid off. Weight = 0.2101.
  2. Consumer Price Index for Services. This is a part of the Consumer Price Index. Service providers may raise prices at the beginning of a recession to maintain profit margins as demand falters. Once the recession hits, they are forced to cut costs and lower prices. They may keep cutting prices, even once the recovery has begun. Those that remain after a recession are likely to continue lowering prices. They keep trying to gain more business because it worked. They don't recognize when the recession is over. Weight = 0.1955. (Source: Conference Board, Index of Lagging Indicators