The financial services sector is integral to the overall level of global economic activity. For this reason, most of the major macroeconomic indicators are very important pieces of data for the outlook of the sector. Financial services companies rely on high levels of business activity to generate revenue by acting as an intermediary in economic transactions.
Economic indicators are released through studies, surveys, sector reports and the data-gathering efforts of government agencies. These indicators have wide-reaching implications for all market sectors. The financial services sector, however, is perhaps the most sensitive to large economic aggregates.
Investors in financial services will typically watch for these four economic indicators as a sign of overall health or potential trouble.
1. Interest Rates
Interest rates are the most significant indicators for banks and other lenders. Banks profit from the difference between the rates they pay depositors and the rates that they charge to borrowers. Banks find it increasingly difficult to pass on interest rate costs to consumers as rates rise. High borrowing costs correspond with fewer loans and more saving. This limits the volume of total profitable activity for lenders.
It is very clear that banks perform best – at least in the short term – when interest rates are lower.
Lower interest rates also turn savers into speculators. It's more difficult to beat inflation when the rate on a savings account or certificate of deposit (CD) is paying a low rate. Workers will turn more often to equities to try to find ways to counter inflation and grow their nest eggs for retirement. This creates demand for asset management services, brokers and other money intermediaries.
2. Gross Domestic Product
Countries around the world track levels of economic activity through gross domestic product (GDP) calculations. Increases in the level of spending or investments cause GDP to rise, and the financial service sector typically sees increased demand for its goods and services when spending and investment levels go up.
Since GDP is the most common and broadest measure of a region's economy, and it is often considered a lagging indicator, the relationship between any one company's stock and the GDP is tenuous at best. Nevertheless, it is considered a useful benchmark for the overall health of the financial sector.
3. Government Regulation and Fiscal Policy
Government regulation is not necessarily an indicator in the traditional sense; instead, investors should keep an eye toward how regulations and tariffs might impact activity from the financial services sector. Banks, which comprise more than half of the entire sector in the U.S., are heavily influenced by reserve requirements, usury laws, insurance and lending guidelines, as well as the possibility of government assistance.
Fiscal policy doesn't affect banks as directly. Rather, it affects the banks' possible customers and trading partners. Consumer confidence tends to rise during expansionary fiscal policy and fall during contractionary fiscal policy. This could translate into fewer investments, trades and loans.
4. Existing Home Sales
The Existing-Home Sales report is issued monthly by the National Association of Realtors. It provides banks and mortgage lenders with recent data on sales prices, inventory levels and the total number of homes sold.
This report often impacts prevailing mortgage rates. Investors in financial services and home construction should see upticks when home sales data is rising.