So you said it would take you too long to review even a condensed version of data on the U.S. economy, but you still want to stay up to date because you own stocks and mutual funds?
Well, for a quick read on the U.S. economy, review oil and General Electric (GE).
The price of oil is a good, rough barometer for the U.S. economy. Don't misunderstand: it's not a perfect barometer, but it does provide a rough indicator of how the U.S. economy is faring, as well as the outlook.
Likewise with GE. It's often been said that diversified industrial giant GE is a mutual fund in one company, but the company is in fact an even more telling barometer than that.
In fact, one can argue that, As GE goes, so goes the United States. The company's operations represent that large a portion of the U.S. economy -- industry, heavy equipment, technology, energy, home and business, military contracts, commercial aviation, media, green technology and finance.
Meanwhile, oil is the lifeblood of the U.S. economy, and, to a lesser extent, of the global economy. For all the rhetoric on clean energies, oil remains the world's most vital commodity.
Oil: A Telling Commodity
Therefore, start with a neutral price of $70 per barrel in 2011 dollars (current dollars). That's equal to about a $51 per barrel price for oil in 1999.
The $70 price is relatively high and it's a level that makes almost every oil exploration project -- save selected oil sands and other non-conventional oil projects -- profitable.
Now, for a variety of reasons, the price of oil can't stay above $70 per barrel if the U.S. economy slumps and/or if the global economy falls into a recession.
Conversely, oil's price is unlikely to drop below and remain below $70 per barrel for a sustained period (six months or longer), if the U.S. economy is growing at a healthy rate.
To be sure, there are exceptions to the above rules: if the U.S. experiences a period of high inflation, or if a sustained war breaks out in the Middle East, or if a major oil producer (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, or Mexico) cuts off oil production to the U.S/world, oil's price would jump, and the GDP in the U.S./world would slump.
What's the price of oil telling us now? Oil plunged $4.65 to $81.27 per barrel on Thursday at midday, as institutional investors continued to express concern about the tepid U.S. economic recovery. A lack of demand from consumers has those investors concerned that the economy will tip back into a recession, lowering oil consumption, and oil's price has responded accordingly. The price of oil is substantially above the $70 level, but a sustained drop below would be a bearish sign for the U.S. economy.
GE: A Telling Stock
Similarly, with GE, monitor its stock price.
Many investors are aware that losses in GE's Capital Finance unit compounded a cycle downturn in business triggered by the 2007-2009, and GE's stock reflected the chilly days, sinking below $5. Overall revenue fell 14% in 2009.
But the recession final gave way to recovery in 2010, and most sector trends currently are running its favor: in particular, demand trends in emerging markets for industrial, aviation, technology, health care, energy services, and green tech bode well for 2012. To be sure, the U.S. economy has slowed considerably, but U.S. big-ticket equipment and infrastructure work will likely pick up heading into 2012.
What's GE's stock price saying about the U.S. economy? GE has slid from about $21 in the winter 2011 to about $15 today -- i.e., it basically telegraphed the U.S. economic slowdown in the second half of 2011. However, GE has failed several times to fall below $14.50, and that level could mark a bottom, and by extension, signal that better quarters are ahead for the U.S. economy, if the stock remains above $14.50.
Market/Economic Analysis: Oil and General Electric are two good shorthands for the world's largest economy -- they provide a quick-read on the U.S. economy. The price decline in each ealier this year basically telegraphed a U.S. economic slowdown.
What's more, if each falls through key support levels, oil at $70, GE at $14.50 that would be a sign a continued deterioration in the U.S. economy. Conversely, if oil and GE rise in a sustained way -- uptrending over two or three months, that would be a sign that the U.S. economy is strengthening.