Friday, February 27, 2009

Economic Indicators vs Stock Market

When the economy slows down and the market is on a downward trend, it is not necessarily bad as this could be a golden opportunity to spot some good stocks at a bargain .

IF YOU have been following the news on a daily basis, you surely would have heard the repeated news on the fall of the US and European markets that are currently spreading gloom across the globe.

With the risk of global recession on the increase, global stock markets are not left unscathed by the predicament the world's economic giants are in. Stock markets worldwide are left to face strong selling pressures that are wiping out their asset values.

As a result, you might be wondering whether your portfolio (albeit confined to the local business environment) is strong enough to weather the adverse external shocks that are causing jitters in markets across the globe.

Why do you need to understand and monitor the economic situation?
A company's earnings and future prospects depend largely on the overall business and economic climate. No matter how strong a company's fundamental is, if the economy is down, the performance of a company will inevitably be affected somewhat. Cyclical stocks will probably face a larger impact compared to non-cyclical or defensive stocks.

Meanwhile, the stronger companies will be able to weather the harsh economic situation better than the weaker or less well managed ones.

Therefore, as an investor, it is important for you to understand the macro picture of the economy, not just the sector/industries or stock/company that you are interested in investing in.

What is an economic indicator
An economic indicator is in simple terms, the official statistical data of a certain economic factor that are published periodically by the government agencies, which an investor can use to gauge the economic situation. It allows investors to analyze the past and current situation and to project the future prospects of the economy.

There are three basic indicators that matter to investors in the stock market, namely inflation, gross domestic product (GDP) and the labour market.

* Inflation
Inflation is important for all investments, simply because it determines the real rate of return that you get from your investment. For instance, if the inflation rate is 5 per cent and the nominal return is 8 per cent, this means that your real rate of return is 3 per cent as the 5 per cent has been eaten by inflation.

Inflation's impact on the stock market is even more complicated. A company's profit will be affected by higher inflation. Its input cost will increase and the impact of the increase will depend on how much of the incremental cost the company is able to pass on to its consumers. The amount that the company will have to absorb will reduce its profits, assuming all else being equal.

The stock market will suffer further negative impact if it is accompanied by increased interest rates as the bond market is seen as a cheaper investment vehicle compared to stocks. When this happens, investors will sell off their stocks to invest in bonds instead.

The most commonly used indicator for the measurement of inflation is consumer price index (CPI). It consists of a basket of goods and services commonly purchased by consumers, such as food, housing, clothes, transportation, medical care and entertainment.

The total value of this basket of goods and services will be compared with the value of the previous year and the percentage increase will be the inflation rate.

On the other hand, where the value drops, it will be a deflation rate. A steady or decreasing trend will be favourable to the overall stock market performance.

* Gross Domestic Product
Another important indicator is the GDP measurement. It is the total value of goods and services produced in a country during the period being measured. When compared to the previous year's reading, the difference between these two readings indicates whether a country's economy is growing or contracting. GDP is usually published quarterly.

When the GDP is positive, the overall stock market will react positively as there will be a boost in investor confidence, encouraging them to invest more in the stock market. This will in turn boost the performances of companies.

When the GDP contracts, consumers tread cautiously and reduce their spending. This in turn will affect the performance of companies negatively, thus exerting more downward pressure on the stock market.

* Labour market
The unemployment rate as a percentage of the total labour force will basically indicate the country's economic state. During an economic meltdown, most companies will either freeze hiring or in more severe cases downsize, by cutting costs and reducing capacity. When this happens, the unemployment rate will increase, which in turn, creates a negative impact on market sentiment.

Bottom line
By understanding the economic indicators, you should be able to gauge the current state of economy and more importantly, the direction in which its headed. Pooling this knowledge together with the detailed research on the companies that you are interested in, you should be well equipped to make sound investment decisions.

Bear in mind that when the economy slows down and the market is on a downward trend, it is not necessarily bad as this could be your golden opportunity to spot some good stocks at a bargain that are worth buying.

Malaysia's economic indicator data can be obtained from the Department of Statistics website at

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