5 signs of the recession's end

It took the government a year to tell us the economy was in a recession; here's how to tell when we're out of it.

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By Elizabeth Strott, MSN Money

I'm sick and tired of reading, writing and hearing about how bad things are these days: The economy stinks, stocks are tanking, people are losing their jobs in droves.

Slide show: Signs the economy is recovering

The economy has got to turn around soon. But how the heck will we know when the turn has come?

Here are five key signs that we at MSN Money will be watching for, plus some extras from experts and a couple from just plain folks eager to see some evidence of a recovery.

1) Indexes start rising

There was a flicker of good news in February, when the Economic Cycle Research Institute's Weekly Leading Index rose for the first time in six weeks.

Expert: Is a recovery coming?

The index, a composite of daily and weekly data on economic drivers of the business cycle, including corporate profits and housing activity, is still looking pretty weak, said Lakshman Achuthan, the managing director at ECRI, but it has stopped falling, and there has been some stabilization since mid-December.

"When these leading indexes begin to start rising, that will be a very clear and, as importantly, a very objective sign of a recovery," Achuthan said.

Detailed information about the institute's research is available only to subscribers, but the leading index is frequently mentioned in news reports and is worth following as a reliable indicator of key changes in the business cycle.

Talk back: How will you know the recession is over?

Another statistic worth following is consumer spending. That is already showing some signs of life. Consumer spending constitutes about 70% of the U.S. economy. When consumers spend, the economy grows. Consumer spending rose 0.6% in January, after a 1% decrease in December and a 0.8% drop in November.

2) Cardboard boxes are in demand

Cargo and cardboard are two heavy-duty industrial signals to watch.

The Baltic Dry Index is an assessment of the price of moving raw materials on cargo ships around the world. When the world economy is fading, shipping gets cheaper. When growth returns, shipping costs more. The index has shown some improvement this year, after sinking to a 22-year low in early December.

"In terms of a glimmer of hope, a tap has been turned," said Michael Gaylard, a derivatives broker at Freight Investor Services.

"The fundamentals -- the raw materials needed that are paramount to infrastructure rebuilding and investment around the globe -- they're starting to move," Gaylard said. "Once the flows that we've seen in the past few weeks start to have some continuity to them, then the market will rebuild. The turnaround has started, but it's going to be a long and slow process."

The cupcake indicator

Continued from page 1

Then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan used to watch the cardboard box business as an indicator of industrial production. About 75% of all nondurable goods are shipped in corrugated cardboard boxes; when demand for boxes is high, that's a sign that the economy is doing well.

3) Diamonds are forever . . . again

Jewelry sales are a leading indicator of recovery in the retail sector, according to Mike Niemira, the chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. So what better store to watch than Tiffany (TIF, news, msgs)?

Sales of engagement rings have been down in recent months, said Mark Aaron, the company's vice president of investor relations.

"It's not that people don't fall in love during a recession," Aaron said, "It's whether they're making that commitment and buying a $10,000 engagement ring and making wedding plans.

"When people start to feel a little more secure about their jobs, when the stock market starts to stabilize, that might be enough to help restore confidence. If we see greater interest in the big-ticket items and a pickup in store traffic, that will be encouraging."

4) Restaurants are bubbly

There was no obvious sign of a recession at BLT Steak in New York City on a recent Thursday night. The tables were full, and the bar was packed.

But co-owner Keith Treyball said he has seen some pullback among his customers. He said he'll know the recession is ending when the most-affluent diners stop ordering the $150 bottles of wine they've been drinking lately and start ordering the $300 bottles they drank when the economy was stronger.

The wine indicator

Some restaurateurs have already seen signs of recovery.

Valentine's Day, traditionally a big one for restaurants, was even bigger for Wolfgang Puck's restaurants this year: Sales were up 25% across the board, said Tom Kaplan, the senior managing partner of Wolfgang Puck's Fine Dining Group.

Some in the restaurant business see sales of Champagne as a leading indicator. If you buy that, there's hope, as bubbly remains very popular at hip bars, nightclubs and hotels, said Stephen Brauer, the general manager of wines and champagnes at Pernod Ricard (PDRDY, news, msgs).

"You have the 25- to 35-year-olds who do not have mortgages and children in college who continue to spend money and enjoy themselves," Brauer said. "You do not have to go to the bank and get a loan to enjoy a great bottle (of Champagne)."

5) Little splurges are back in style

Here's another sign of life. Murray's Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village was packed on my last visit. I'd never seen it so crowded.

Cheese shop indicator

Continued from page 2

Some glass-half-empty folks might say people were buying cheese for a night in, instead going out to dinner, but Murray's, which Forbes named the world's best cheese store, does not sell Kraft (KFT, news, msgs) singles. Cheese lovers end up spending $20 for a hunk of cheese. I did.

And people are still lining up for cupcakes at New York City's Magnolia Bakery. The bakery, which recently opened two more stores, has seen sales of its $2.50 cupcakes continually rise.

Strong sales of small indulgences demonstrate Americans still like to treat themselves and may soon be ready to move on to bigger treats.

Our own economic indicators

So what are other people watching?

Mike McLaughlin, an Asics sneaker salesman and an avid golfer from New Jersey, said he'll know things are improving when tee times become more expensive and harder to get.

Jen Sundstrom, a pharmaceutical sales representative in Philadelphia, will know when she finds herself back at Whole Foods Market (WFMI, news, msgs) for all of her grocery shopping.

Eric Goldberg, a regular at BLT Steak's bar, said his indicator is "the amount of time it takes to get a seat at the bar at BLT Steak." It's been easier to find a seat because fewer people have been out, he said.

Readers, take note: Goldberg stood the whole night.

Other people said they'd know a recovery was coming when they:

  • Upgraded to a bigger flat-screen television.
  • Saw lawyers working until 2 a.m. again.
  • Replaced generic dog food with organic brands.
  • Bought Starbucks (SBUX, news, msgs) lattes again.
  • Rejoined a gym and purchased sessions with a personal trainer.
  • Had more trouble catching a cab in New York City.

The taxicab indicator

David Zelman of housing research firm Zelman & Associates says he'll know the recession is over when he stops watching CNBC all day.

Where's the remote?

Published March 12, 2009