What Non-Government Economic Indicators Say

In the shutdown-induced absence of several national economic indicators, media outlets have highlighted some quirky options for gaining insight on the U.S. economy - including the plastic surgery indicator and the beer consumption index.

Odd indicators aside, there are many private data sources of information that can be useful on an ongoing basis to determine the current state of American businesses and consumers.

The American Trucking Associations, a federation of state associations and industry councils and conferences, for example, releases a monthly truck tonnage index based on surveys. The group, which says trucking represents nearly 69 percent of all tonnage carried by domestic freight transportation, is set to release its September data on Oct. 22. Last month, the ATA reported an August increase in the index, aided by manufacturing and growth in heavy-freight industries such as housing construction, auto manufacturing and hydraulic fracking.

For insight into business investment, the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association provides monthly data on new-business volume, receivables and credit approval rates as reported by 25 representative firms. The association recently lowered its estimate for 2013 investment in equipment and software to 3.3 percent from an earlier estimate of 4.8 percent, saying investment growth had slowed in the second quarter.

Other firms provide data on specific industries or economic sectors based on surveys, market research or financial results. Sageworks, a financial information company, recently released preliminary data from its warehouse of financial statements indicating that privately held companies are growing sales at a significantly slower rate than in recent years, prompting concern about future hiring by employers. Sageworks, which analyzes dozens of financial metrics, also recently released data relevant to business inventories. The data show private companies so far in 2013 have average inventory days totaling nearly 85, compared with between 81 and 82 days in each of 2012 and 2011.

A separate study of publicly traded firms by the Georgia Tech Financial Analysis Lab released recently noted median revenues declined in the 12 months ended June 2013, which researchers said signals a slowdown for the U.S. economy.

"One of the lesser known aspects of the shutdown is that a lot of economic data that researchers rely on is being held up," said Sageworks analyst Tim McPeak. "In order to evaluate current business trends, researchers are turning to alternative data sources, which often provide valuable, sometimes overlooked, information."

If lawmakers don't resolve the budget impasse, upcoming indicators that could be delayed include the Consumer Price Index as well as reports on construction, industrial production and durable goods orders. According to Sageworks' preliminary data for 2013, privately held manufacturing companies in the U.S. are seeing average sales growth of 2.3 percent. That's sharply lower than 10.5 percent growth in 2012 and 15 percent growth in 2011.