By Jessica Toonkel
(Reuters) – When Kim Forrest attends dog shows, she is there not just for her two wirehaired pointing griffons. She is also doing research for her day job as a portfolio manager and equity analyst.
Forrest, who works for the Pittsburgh-based Fort Pitt Capital Group, believes participation in dog shows is as middle class as it gets and as such is a great economic gauge.
“This is the very definition of disposable income.”
Forrest is not alone in using an offbeat indicator. Several analysts and investors look at unusual data, hoping it will help them spot economic trends sooner or understand them better than those who rely on conventional fare.
“Many market strategists cling to the Fed minutes and other standard information,” says Nick Colas, chief market strategist at the ConvergEx Group in New York. “If I want to be competitive I need something different.”
Colas tracks gun permit background checks, food stamps and frequency of Google searches. Others analyze TV commercials for wedding packages, shopping mall traffic or garbage volumes. They all say unconventional indicators are especially useful at a time like this when standard data keep sending mixed signals.
For example, in the past few weeks, jobless claims hit a 15-year low, but gross domestic product data showed a marked slowdown in U.S. growth.
And what do the quirky data show?
Essentially a still somewhat tenuous U.S. recovery nearly six years after the end of the Great Recession.
Colas for example, notes that gun permit background checks have been rising, which he considers a good sign. He acknowledges there could be many factors affecting firearm sales, but reckons the willingness to spend hundreds of dollars on guns does work as a measure of spending power.
On the other hand, food stamp usage Colas also monitors has held steady, while the frequency of Google searches of the term “food stamp” has been on the rise.
“The bottom line is we are in a tepid recovery.”
Forrest also saw a reason for concern when she took part in a dog show in western Pennsylvania last month and found that the number of entrants has been slipping.
“This really told me that things were not okay.”
She believes regional shows she attends across the country are a better gauge than nationwide data which have held steady, but are skewed by big, high-profile events attended by professional breeders.
It’s not all gloom, though.
WEDDINGS AND MALLS
Bill Smead, chief investment officer of Seattle-based Smead Capital Management, for example, was encouraged by the frequency of Southwest Airlines <LUV.N> TV ads promoting low fares for the upcoming wedding season.
“Weddings are usually followed by buying houses, having babies and buying cars that fit car seats,” he says. “That is the driver of the U.S. economy.”
Smead acknowledges that it could take years before the newlyweds decide to have offspring, but says his investment philosophy is about being patient, sometimes contrarian, and looking years ahead, often with the help of non-standard indicators.
Peter Kenny, chief market strategist at New York-based trading firm Clearpool Group, also sees positive signs emerging from his research.
Once every four to six weeks he heads to a shopping mall to check how busy it is and how high-end retailers such as Apple <AAPL.O> or women’s clothing chain Madewell are doing and notes that the traffic clearly picked up last month.
Tracking dog shows sounds more fun than poring over non-farm payroll data, but does it work?
Tim Duy, economics professor at the University of Oregon, says offbeat indicators can help investors crystallize their views, but they need to be careful with their interpretation.
“The challenge of these indicators is to separate out the movements attributable to non-economic factors,” says Duy. For example, firearm sales could rise in anticipation of tougher gun laws, he says.
Analysts and investors say that while it is not a precise science, going off the beaten track is well worth the effort.
Colas, for example, says food stamp use has been a reliable proxy of the U.S. economy’s strength and has helped form his view that the Fed would be patient about raising interest rates.
Kenny says his trips to the malls chimed with the first quarter gross domestic product data that showed a slow economic recovery and now expects new data to confirm the pick up he has seen over the past few weeks.
And Duy himself, who collects monthly landfill data for Oregon because he believes the economy produces more waste when it is growing, says over the years the figures have consistently squared with the findings of the more traditional indicators.
(Editing by Tomasz Janowski)