This week’s economic numbers are cheering, no disappointing, no exciting. What’s cheering? American companies were busy restocking warehouses in May, increasing by 0.5% and following a hearty increase of 0.6% in April. What’s disappointing? Retail sales in the U.S. edged up by just 0.2% in June. And what’s exciting? Bombardier Aerospace sold a whopping $3.35 billion worth of aircraft in the month of July, which will have a visibly positive effect on national trade balance figures come the end of the quarter.

So are things looking up, or down, or what? How do small to medium Canadian exporters know where the world economy is headed when the numbers that run all over the place? This is data overload, something that Export Development Canada’s chief economist, Peter Hall, calls the “tyranny of the urgent” and warns that “a key danger of the data deluge is a narrowing of perspective.”

So what numbers really matter? Which ones should you the exporter care the most about? Here are four to watch:

  • Purchasing Managers Indices (PMIs): These indices track economic output, new orders, backlogs, stock levels, employment and input and output prices across the manufacturing, construction, retail and service sectors. As their names suggest they are compilations of data provided by purchasing managers—how much inputs are they ordering for production and what prices are they looking at? Theses indices are produced faster than data compiled by government agencies such as Statistics Canada and they usually appear monthly. One PMI to watch is MarkIt Economics’ PMI. MarkIT boasts that its Eurozone Composite PMI Output Index eerily predicted that region’s economic crash of 2008.
  • The Baltic Dry Index is a standard shipping index, updated daily, that measures the price of moving raw materials by sea. Named for a boat, not the European sea, it tracks the demand for shipping capacity, which is relatively inelastic. It reflects world demand for the raw materials needed for economic production. Its land-side counterpart for North America might be the Cass Freight Index, which measures continental freight volumes and expenditures, and the Nulogx Canadian General Freight Index
  • Global GDP is the fundamental metric for how a country is performing, although each nation’s performance is only infrequently updated. In some cases, such as that of Argentina, the figures may be woozy estimates or downright misleading. Still, the World Bank takes a good stab at it for the world’s countries and territories and shows year-over-year performance. The details can be surprising: Despite ongoing political unrest, Egypt economy grew by almost 50% between 2009 and 2013.
  • Trade Data Online is produced by Industry Canada, and while it’s not a true economic indicator of the economy as a whole, the data sets it provides show exactly what’s going on in your industry. The information helps you to determine where to export your products, how much competition there is, provide overseas trade balances and where products like yours are being imported. In addition, the World Bank produces Market Data and Information tools provide export and import stats for 200 jurisdictions.

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