Message in a Bottle: What Water Sales Tell Us About the Economy

People might complain about gasoline prices, but how about water prices? A recent rally has brought RBOB gasoline futures up to $3.10 per gallon, but compare that to the $7.57 per gallon you're paying for water if you buy 16.9 ounce bottles for a dollar each.

The truly impressive fact is that even though tap water is all but free, bottled water sales continue to surge. The Beverage Marketing Corp. estimates that Americans spent $11.8 billion on bottled water in 2012 (the most recent available data)—a 6.5 percent increase from 2011.

And according to a Friday note from the ConvergEx Group, sales of bottled water indicate a great deal about the economy. As Nicholas Colas, the firm's chief market strategist, put it, "Can things be all that bad if consumers happily pay 300 times more than they have to for water?"

To Colas, bottled water sales show that people may be doing better than consumer confidence surveys suggest.

"Any household that's truly in the throes of a big budgetary crisis would cut down on bottled water," he told CNBC.com. "The fact that people are still buying a 24-pack of bottled water at the local Wal-Mart indicates that perhaps things aren't as bad as you think."

Jonathan Feeney, a food and beverage analyst at Janney Capital Markets, sees merit in this line of thinking.

"Bottled water sales were pressured in 2008 and 2009," during the recession, Feeney said. "It's intuitively appealing to think that there's a link between the broader economy and bottled water sales."

Offices are large buyers of bottled water, Feeney noted, and people buy water when they travel. So if sales are rising, "that means more people are in their cars, and more people are at work," the analyst said. "Like a lot of staples, it serves cyclical activity—but maybe more so, because it's a totally discretionary expenditure."

For his part, Colas doesn't drink bottled water. But Sarah Millar, a member of his market strategy team at ConvergEx, said she purchases bottled water occasionally.

"I buy maybe one bottle every three months and keep refilling it," Millar said.

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg. Follow him on Twitter: @CNBCAlex.

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