Reading The Tea Leaves: Leading, Lagging & Coincident Indicators | ETF Trends

With heightened economic uncertainty, we are noticing an increased interest in economic data as it’s reported. Market pundits are hanging on each new data point and related utterance from the U.S. Federal Reserve in an attempt to read the tea leaves. In essence, they are looking for signs to predict whether or not the economy is at an inflection point. This influx of data and commentary can be confusing and unnerving but with some perspective and a quick refresh of basic economics, we think we can help provide a little bit of clarity and perspective to make sense of the numbers. It is important to note that no single indicator is a crystal ball, but taken in aggregate, these indicators can give us a pretty good idea of the state of the economy.

Assessing the health and direction of an economy can be accomplished using economic indicators. These indicators fall into three main types: leading indicators, lagging indicators, and coincident indicators. Each type plays a distinct role in forecasting economic trends and monitoring the current state of the economy. Let’s explore the differences between these indicators and their significance.


Leading indicators are economic metrics that tend to change before the overall economy starts to follow a particular pattern or trend. These indicators are used to predict future economic activity and provide early signals of economic shifts, such as turning points in the business cycle. Stock market performance, building permits, consumer sentiment, and average weekly hours worked are just a few examples of leading indicators. By analyzing these indicators, economists and analysts attempt to gauge where the economy might be headed in the near future.

For example, an increase in building permits can signal a rise in future construction activity and suggest a growing economy. Additionally, a decline in consumer sentiment can indicate a pending decrease in consumer spending and economic growth.


Lagging indicators, as the name suggests, are data series that change after the overall economy has already started following a specific pattern or trend. These indicators confirm the direction of the economy and are used to validate or verify economic trends that have already occurred. Lagging indicators are often backward-looking, relying on historical data, and tend to have less predictive power than leading indicators. Examples of lagging indicators include unemployment rates, inflation rates, and corporate profits.

For instance, rising unemployment rates may indicate an economic downturn has already begun, whereas surging corporate profits may reflect an uptick in economic growth has already taken place.


Coincident indicators are economic metrics that change simultaneously with the overall economy. These indicators provide real-time or nearly real-time information about the current state of the economy. They help monitor economic activity and provide a snapshot of the present economic conditions. Coincident indicators include metrics such as industrial production, retail sales, and gross domestic product (GDP).

For example, a decrease in retail sales indicates a drop in consumer spending at that very moment, which suggests an economic contraction. On the other hand, rising industrial production implies increased manufacturing activity and a growing economy.

The following chart provides just a few examples of common leading, lagging, and coincident indicators. The indicators mentioned are often helpful in economic analyses to gauge the current state and future direction of the economy.

In summary, leading indicators offer insights into future economic trends and potential turning points, lagging indicators confirm or validate past economic trends, and coincident indicators provide a real-time snapshot of the current state of the economy. By analyzing these different types of indicators, economists, policymakers, and businesses can make informed decisions, anticipate economic changes, and devise strategies to navigate the ever-evolving economic landscape. It’s important to consider a combination of these indicators to obtain a comprehensive view of the economic situation and its potential future trajectory.

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