DEFINITION of 'Barometer'

Barometers are data points that represent trends in the market or the general economy. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) serve as barometers of stock market performance, and are often used as barometers for the U.S. economy as a whole. It is quite common for a stock index or exchange to be used as a barometer for national economic health. Barometers can also be used to measure behavior at the consumer level. For example, slowing sales at high-end restaurants while revenues at fast-food eateries are increasing may be an indication consumers are reigning in their spending. 

BREAKING DOWN 'Barometer'

Barometers are sequential data points that measure the direction and strength of trends ranging from global economies to consumers in specific regions. These measurements can be used as single trend indicators or aggregated and assessed for correlating data points. Generally speaking, high data correlation indicates trends that have traction and may be building strength, while measurements showing mixed signals may be indicative of directionless markets. Examples of economic barometers include the unemployment rate, job creations and inflation rates.

Economic Barometers

Many of the barometers that measure economic trends are issued by government agencies and departments. For example, the monthly unemployment rate and inflation data are announced by the U.S. Department of Labor, while the quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) report is issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce. These barometers provide a general accounting of the health of the economy at the macro level using massive amounts of data collected across the country.

Market Barometers

Headline barometers such as the S&P 500 Index measure the broad market by tracking the price performance of a diverse portfolio of companies representative of the U.S. economy. Sector-level barometers can provide intelligence on developing trends in specific industries, which can be indicative of trends for both the economy and consumer behavior. For example, increasing sales by companies in the consumer cyclical sector, which includes electronics, apparel and travel companies, may be indicative of a healthy economy in which discretionary income is increasing.

Consumer-level Barometers

Barometers that measure consumer behavior include housing sales, consumer spending and durable goods sales. These barometers are followed closely because consumer spending represents approximately 70% of the nation’s GDP, and the earliest signals of shifts in the economic landscape are often indicated first by changes in consumer behavior. Tracking these behavioral changes, especially when barometers are tightly correlated, can help businesses stay ahead of the curve by taking proactive measures and making informed decisions on short- and intermediate-term strategies, management of inventories and expansion.

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