x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The View from Here: Flying on the wings of market indicators

For economists, market indicators are the winds they must test to provide guidance for coming months.

Indicators tend to create a pigeon-like flapping in the markets when announced. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National
Indicators tend to create a pigeon-like flapping in the markets when announced. Rich-Joseph Facun / The National

It's a ritual every small boy will experience sooner or later: the lick of a finger, held high to the sky to test for wind direction, before launching a kite. Minutes later, the kite is wrapped around a tree.

Economists go through the same finger-licking test, often with similar results, except they don't get to run home crying to their mums afterwards.

For financial analysts of all sorts, market indicators are the wind they need to test to provide guidance for the coming months.

Indicators can also be valuable to personal investors. Every time we reach into our pockets to buy a house or car, move jobs or retire, we make financial decisions, the outcome of which will be influenced by economic indicators, if only we know where to look. Most can be ignored, but a few are worth following.

The first is the consumer price index (CPI), which is simply a gauge of inflation. Based on a hypothetical basket of goods, it reveals the rate at which prices increase each month. Much derided by consumers and flint-eyed grandmothers who shop for actual groceries, the CPI is the keenest indicator of whether interest rates will go up, down or stay where they are.

The CPI is usually announced once a month in the United States, the United Kingdom and many other economies. In the US, there is an upper limit of what is seen as acceptable. If the CPI creeps above this, the Federal Reserve, the watchdog of these things, will hike rates. And within minutes of the Fed doing so, your credit card, home loan and every other bit of debt will cost you more.

For anyone planning to incur a large debt - buying a house or car, for instance, the CPI is the best way of predicting just how much that burden will grow - or shrink - in the coming year.

The decision over whether to hike or not is as important as the indicator itself. Both announcements are closely watched. In the UK, it is the Bank of England that swings the axe on this one. In the US, of course, it's the Fed. And in Europe, it's the vastly influential European Central Bank.

Next one to watch is the US Department of Labor non-farm payroll employment figures. This particular indicator has caused much gnashing of teeth among economists of late. It points to how many new permanent jobs the world's largest consumer nation has created. And, by inference, how well companies selling goods and services to Americans will do.

Because the modern world lives and dies by how much Uncle Sam spends on McBurgers, new cars and iPads, this figure will have a particular effect on your shares, mutual funds and pension investments, regardless of where you live.

For all the chest beating over China, close to becoming the world's largest economy, the US will remain the richest in terms of spending power for many years to come. So the non-farm payrolls announcement, usually the third Friday of every month, has the power to move global markets and have a direct impact on your savings.

Commodity prices, particularly gold and oil, is another indicator. Seems obvious, I know, but in the UAE, where consumers are lulled into complacency by subsidised prices, the rise and fall of benchmark energy prices seems academic. But since the world turns on what it costs to move goods and services, it will have a direct effect on your bottom line.

And gold, as they say, climbs a wall of worry. The more anxiety there is in global markets, the higher gold goes. Like the business confidence index - another valuable indicator - the price of these commodities is a sort of happiness measurement of the world's financial state. The factors driving these commodities are widely discussed and we need not go into them here; suffice to say, your financial health is dependent on the big picture - and it doesn't come much bigger than gold and oil.

Still, as important as these indicators are, they are not oracles. They tend to create a pigeon-like flapping in the markets when they are announced, particularly when the results are not expected, as the last non-farm payrolls data did when it fell below expectations earlier this month. Markets tank and analysts pen fretful opinions.

Do not ring up your broker each time market-moving news is announced, or abandon plans to buy a house. Instead, keep abreast of these indicators to give you a long-term view of where your financial future lies.

Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa.

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