Looking for economic indicators

Posted by Dan Barkin on December 13, 2013 

I’m always on the lookout for economic indicators. For years, my number one indicator was the price of a gallon of gas.

When it went up, it meant people were driving more, and that was a good economic indicator. When it went down, that wasn’t a good sign. During the depths of the recent recession, gas prices plummeted. I remember driving through rural Virginia one weekend five years ago and seeing it well under $2.

This isn’t as reliable an indicator anymore because the U.S. has substantially increased its oil production and Iraq is pumping a lot more crude. We may be awash in cheap gas soon.

So I am always looking for other indicators.

I was intrigued to hear that the Raleigh City Council is planning a Wilmington retreat to do some deep thinking. They are fixing to spend $11,000-plus on this three-day planning getaway, because everyone knows that if you want to come up with good ideas, go meditate by the banks of the Cape Fear.

What interested me is that, evidently, municipal finances are doing so well that the honorables aren’t squeamish about spending this kind of dough. Some folks are tetchy about this, but I see a positive economic sign here. After the ice breaker (I’m partial to the “I’m falling backwards now/so you’ll catch me, OK? OK?” trust exercise), I’m sure they’ll come up with a strategic way forward for the city worth 11 large, easy.

Another indicator in the right direction is the guy working the Caterpillar backhoe in front of the Wake County parking deck on South McDowell where it crosses West Davie. This is where Greg Hatem - developer, entrepreneur, restaurant mogul - has started construction of the long-awaited L Building.

For years, I have been driving by this parking deck thinking that when something happens with this Hatem project, that is a sign. Maybe happy days wouldn’t be here again, but maybe OK days.

So I got excited the other day seeing that yellow machine digging a big hole in front of the parking deck around the corner from my office. I wanted to honk my horn. Economic indicator, right in front of my eyes.

A really good indicator is residential real estate, and what’s happening with it. The answer is that people are climbing out of their storm cellars and getting back into the market. In Wake County, there were more closings of single-family resales, i.e., existing homes, from January through September than in all of last year. The median price of a resale, which was $201,500 in 2009, is back up to $227,000. This is from Market Opportunity Research Enterprises, a Rocky Mount company.

But better than numbers was a photo I saw in the Eastern Wake News. Johnny Whitfield, who is editor of paper, went out to cover the opening of the Wendell Falls Parkway. He wrote a story for the News and shot a picture, sitting atop this blog post, of a line of dignitaries getting ready to cut the big ribbon.

Here is what Johnny wrote: “After a recession put the development of Wendell Falls on hold for about five years, Friday marked the first tangible evidence that the town’s largest residential development is again moving forward.”

So this may be the most significant economic indicator of late: The ribbon getting cut across a new road in Wendell for a massive development that went bust in the crash.

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