Reading: Measuring the Health of the Economy

Measuring the Health of the Economy

Every day, we’re bombarded with economic news. We’re told that the economy is struggling, unemployment is high, home prices are low, and consumer confidence is down. As a student learning about business, and later, as a business manager, you need to understand the nature of the U.S. economy and the terminology used to describe it. It’s important to have some idea of where the economy is heading and know something about the government’s role in influencing its direction.

Economic Indicators

An economic indicator is a statistic that provides valuable information about the economy. The majority of economic indicators are collected and released by government and/or non-profit groups. In the U.S., Department of Commerce and the Department of Labor track and publish key indicators such as the unemployment rate and GDP. There is no shortage of economic indicators, and trying to follow them all would be an overwhelming task. Thus, economists and businesspeople typically track only a select few that are most pertinent to their professional, financial and economic interests.

Economic Goals

All the world’s economies share the following three main goals:

  1. Growth
  2. High employment
  3. Price stability

Economic indicators provide information about how an economy is performing relative to these goals. Let’s take a closer look at each of these goals, both to find out what they mean and to show how we determine whether they’re being met.


One purpose of an economy is to provide people with goods and services—cars, computers, video games, houses, rock concerts, fast food, amusement parks. One way in which economists measure the performance of an economy is by looking at a widely used measure of total output called gross domestic product (GDP). GDP is defined as the market value of all goods and services produced by the economy in a given year. In the United States, it’s calculated by the Department of Commerce. GDP includes only those goods and services produced domestically; goods produced outside the country are excluded. GDP also includes only those goods and services that are produced for the final user; intermediate products are excluded. For example, the silicon chip that goes into a computer (an intermediate product) would not count, even though the finished computer would.

By itself, GDP doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the state of the economy. But change in GDP does. If GDP (after adjusting for inflation) goes up, the economy is growing. If it goes down, the economy is contracting.

High Employment

To keep the economy going strong, people must spend money on goods and services. A reduction in personal expenditures for things like food, clothing, appliances, automobiles, housing, and medical care could severely reduce GDP and weaken the economy. Because most people earn their spending money by working, an important goal of all economies is making jobs available to everyone who wants one. In principle, full employment occurs when everyone who wants to work has a job. In practice, we say that we have “full employment” when about 95 percent of those wanting to work are employed.

The Unemployment Rate

The U.S. Department of Labor tracks unemployment and reports the unemployment rate: the percentage of the labor force that’s unemployed and actively seeking work. The unemployment rate is an important measure of economic health. It goes up during periods of economic decline because companies are reluctant to hire workers when demand for goods and services is low. Conversely, it goes down when the economy is expanding and there is high demand for products and workers to supply them.

Figure 1 below traces the U.S. unemployment rate between 1970 and 2010. If you want to know the current unemployment rate, go to CNNMoney, click on “Economy,” and then on “Job Growth.”

Graph showing U.S. unemployment rates from 1970 to 2010. The two peaks in unemployment, in 1982 and 1992, coincided with recessions, which are periods of declining GDP.

Figure 1. The U.S. Unemployment Rate, 1970–2010

Price Stability

A third major goal of all economies is maintaining price stability. Price stability occurs when the average of the prices for goods and services either doesn’t change or changes very little. Rising prices are troublesome for both individuals and businesses. For individuals, rising prices mean you have to pay more for the things you need. For businesses, rising prices mean higher costs, and, at least in the short run, businesses might have trouble passing on higher costs to consumers. When the overall price level goes up, we have inflation. Figure 2 below shows inflationary trends in the U.S. economy since 1960. When the price level goes down (which rarely happens), we have deflation.

Graph showing the U.S. inflation rate from 1960 to 2010. During both peak periods (1974 and 1979 to 1980), the price of oil doubled.

Figure 2. The U.S. Inflation Rate, 1960–2010

The Consumer Price Index

The most widely publicized measure of inflation is the consumer price index (CPI), which is reported monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CPI measures the rate of inflation by determining price changes of a hypothetical basket of goods, such as food, housing, clothing, medical care, appliances, automobiles, and so forth, bought by a typical household.

The CPI base period is 1982 to 1984, which has been given an average value of 100. The table below “Selected CPI Values, 1950–2010″ gives CPI values computed for selected years. The CPI value for 1950, for instance, is 24. This means that $1 of typical purchases in 1982 through 1984 would have cost $0.24 in 1950. Conversely, you would have needed $2.18 to purchase the same $1 worth of typical goods in 2010. The difference registers the effect of inflation. In fact, that’s what an inflation rate is—the percentage change in a price index.

Selected CPI Values, 1950–2010
Year 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2001 2002
CPI 24.1 29.1 38.8 82.4 130.7 172.2 177.1 179.9
Year 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
CPI 184.0 188.9 195.3 201.6 207.3 215.3 214.15 218.1


You can find out the current CPI by going to CNNMoney.  Click on “Economy” and then on “Inflation (CPI).”

Consumer Confidence Index

A private research firm called the Conference Board publishes a consumer confidence index based on results of a monthly survey of five thousand U.S. households. The survey gathers consumers’ opinions on the health of the economy and their plans for future purchases. It’s often a good indicator of consumers’ future buying intent. When consumers are confident, they tend to spend more money and increase economic activity. When consumers are less confident, they typically spend less money and economic activity declines.


For information on current consumer confidence, go to the Conference Board and click on “consumer confidence.”

Economic Forecasting

Economists use a variety of indicators, such as those described above, to assess the performance of the economy at a given time. By looking at changes in GDP, for instance, we can see whether the economy is growing. The CPI allows us to gauge inflation. These measures help us understand where the economy stands today. But what if we want to get a sense of where it’s headed in the future? To a certain extent, we can forecast future economic trends by analyzing several leading economic indicators.

Lagging and Leading Indicators

Statistics that report the status of the economy a few months in the past are called lagging economic indicators. One such indicator is average length of unemployment. If unemployed workers have remained out of work for a long time, we may infer that the economy has been slow. Indicators that predict the status of the economy three to twelve months in the future are called leading economic indicators. If such an indicator rises, the economy is likely to expand in the coming year. If it falls, the economy is likely to contract.

To predict where the economy is headed, we obviously must examine several leading indicators. It’s also helpful to look at indicators from various sectors of the economy—labor, manufacturing, and housing. One useful indicator of the outlook for future jobs is the number of new claims for unemployment insurance. This measure tells us how many people recently lost their jobs. If it’s rising, it signals trouble ahead because unemployed consumers can’t buy as many goods and services as they could if they had paychecks.

To gauge the level of goods to be produced in the future (which will translate into future sales), economists look at a statistic called average weekly manufacturing hours. This measure tells us the average number of hours worked per week by production workers in manufacturing industries. If it’s on the rise, the economy will probably improve. For assessing the strength of the housing market, building permits is often a good indicator. An increase in this statistic—which tells us how many new housing units are being built—indicates that the economy is improving. Why? Because increased building brings money into the economy not only through new home sales but also through sales of furniture and appliances to furnish them.

Finally, if you want a measure that combines all these economic indicators, as well as others, the Conference Board publishes a U.S. leading index. To get an idea of what leading economic indicators are telling us about the state of the economy today, go to the Conference Board and click on “U.S. Indicators” and then “leading economic index.”


  • All economies share three goals: growth, high employment, and price stability.
  • To get a sense of where the economy is headed in the future, we use statistics called economic indicators.
  • Growth. An economy provides people with goods and services, and economists measure its performance by studying the gross domestic product (GDP)—the market value of all goods and services produced by the economy in a given year.
  • If GDP goes up, the economy is growing; if it goes down, the economy is contracting.
  • High employment. Because most people earn their money by working, a goal of all economies is making jobs available to everyone who wants one.
  • The U.S. government reports an unemployment rate—the percentage of the labor force that’s unemployed and actively seeking work.
  • The unemployment rate goes up during periods when the economy is in decline and down when the economy is expanding.
  • Price stability. When the average prices of products either don’t change or change very little, price stability occurs.
  • When overall prices go up, we have inflation; when they go down, we have deflation.
  • The consumer price index (CPI) measures inflation by determining the change in prices of a hypothetical basket of goods bought by a typical household.
  • Indicators that, like average length of unemployment, report the status of the economy a few months in the past are lagging economic indicators.
  • Those, like new claims for unemployment insurance, that predict the status of the economy three to twelve months in the future are leading economic indicators.


Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in this section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.