Measuring the Health of the Economy

Read this section to understand more about economic growth. Looking at GDP alone does not give much of an indication of the health of an economy. It is the change in GDP that is relevant. If GDP goes up, the economy is growing. This positive movement is what we want as we leave behind the most recent recession. Complete the exercises at the end of the section.

Economic Forecasting

Lagging and Leading Indicators

Statistics that report the status of the economy a few months in the past are called lagging economic indicators. One such indicator is average length of unemployment. If unemployed workers have remained out of work for a long time, we may infer that the economy has been slow. Indicators that predict the status of the economy three to twelve months in the future are called leading economic indicators. If such an indicator rises, the economy is likely to expand in the coming year. If it falls, the economy is likely to contract.

To predict where the economy is headed, we obviously must examine several leading indicators. It's also helpful to look at indicators from various sectors of the economy – labor, manufacturing, and housing. One useful indicator of the outlook for future jobs is the number of new claims for unemployment insurance. This measure tells us how many people recently lost their jobs. If it's rising, it signals trouble ahead because unemployed consumers can't buy as many goods and services as they could if they had paychecks.

To gauge the level of goods to be produced in the future (which will translate into future sales), economists look at a statistic called average weekly manufacturing hours. This measure tells us the average number of hours worked per week by production workers in manufacturing industries. If it's on the rise, the economy will probably improve. For assessing the strength of the housing market, building permits is often a good indicator. An increase in this statistic – which tells us how many new housing units are being built – indicates that the economy is improving. Why? Because increased building brings money into the economy not only through new home sales but also through sales of furniture and appliances to furnish them.

Finally, if you want a measure that combines all these economic indicators, as well as others, a private research firm called the Conference Board publishes a U.S. leading index. To get an idea of what leading economic indicators are telling us about the state of the economy today, go to the Conference Board site at and click on "U.S. Indicators" and then "leading economic index".