Five indicators, suggested by the Wall Street Journal for small businesses to watch. All are easy to obtain and help you understand what is going on outside your organization that may affect your direction and results.
As we work with businesses, we often discuss the leading and lagging indicators they have to tell them
how their business has been doing, and what they can expect in the future. The most relevant indicators
tend to come from inside an organization, such as orders shipped, the sales pipeline, customer contacts,
etc. All of these can be defined and tracked using internal systems such as an ERP.
But we cannot ignore the external, general market conditions. We are part of a value chain, and the
things that affect our customers and suppliers affect us. For some businesses, these are identifiable and
obtainable, and having the information as soon as possible in a useful way is essential to planning. For
example, a company that uses petroleum as one of its supply products needs to know the futures
market for oil; or an organization that sells ice cream may look at the weather forecast and plan for
warmer, or cooler weather. These are easy to obtain, but others are more difficult, requiring a research
department to collect and report on the information. With this high cost, what can any small business
look at in order to understand what the market may do, including the impact on customers, suppliers,
credit availability, and even its own employee base? Below we provide five indicators, suggested by the
Wall Street Journal for small businesses to watch. All are easy to obtain and help you understand what
is going on outside your organization that may affect your direction and results.
Indicator 1: Real Personal Consumption Expenditures
This indicator tracks the changes in prices for consumer products and services, adjusted for inflation.
Because it accounts for 70% of the gross domestic product, any change in this number can have a ripple
effect, and the closer to consumer products a company is the more immediate and pronounced the
impact can be. But all businesses are ultimately affected because the supply chain ultimately affects an
end user (consumer), not to mention the general economic increase or decrease in such a large part of
the economy. And small business in particular is affected, since they often lack the cash reserves and
credit availability of larger organization to smooth out the changes this indicator reflects.
Indicator 2: Consumer Confidence
While similar to the consumption indicator, this is more forward looking and is based on surveys of
random consumers. It is important because people will spend more freely when they feel confident
about their current position and future. A business watching this can understand potential demand
shifts in the coming weeks and months. Because this is surveyed data, there are multiple sources, some
are provided in the table below.
Indicator 3: Producer Price Index
Unlike the consumer based indexes, this tracks what wholesale suppliers are doing with prices. A
company that watches this indicator will be have an insight into what they may pay, or charge in the
marketplace. By combining it with the consumer indexes, if they see the index rise significantly, and
consumer indexes drop, they can expect to experience a squeeze in profits. They may be selling less
finished goods, and paying more for the raw materials. The laws of supply and demands will affect them
on both ends.
Indicator 4: U.S. Dollar
This is an indicator of inflation, and has become more important as we increased trade with countries
using other currencies. If the dollar loses value against these currencies, U.S. exports look more
attractive to some foreign buyers, since their currency is now worth more to us in U.S. dollars. However,
within the U.S. it may take more dollars to purchase the same materials, causing producer prices to rise.
There are multiple ways to track this, and if you tend to do business with suppliers or customers in non
U.S. dollar markets, you should watch the exchange rate with that currency. But the simplest way to
track it across the board is to use a combination of foreign currency exchange rates, especially if they
are weighted for trade percentages. A change in the exchange rate with a country that we have a lot of
trade with will affect us more the one we do little trade with. Alternatively, you can watch the price of
gold, which is inverse to the value of the dollar. The more gold costs the less the dollar is worth, with the
opposite also true.
Indicator 5: Unemployment Rate
As unemployment rises, the other indicators are ultimately affected. When people see the change, and
especially when they experience job loss, spending habits will change also. It is an early earning to the
consumer based indicators of consumption and confidence. Job loss is one of the greatest fears, and
hence one of the greatest impacts to current and planned spending. People who may lose a job hold off
on major purchase, and people who have lost them slow hesitate on even minor purchases.
It also indicates what the market is doing in terms of expanding and contracting a business; this aspect is
particularly true if you can see employment figures in your specific industry.