Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

The Bacon Cheeseburger Index, and other cool measures

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You can learn about as much about the economy from bacon cheeseburgers as you can nonfarm payrolls, the consumer price index or any of the plethora of other reports that come out each month to measure growth.

After all, economists are from Venus and everyone else is from Earth, right?

Well, maybe that's taking it too far, but according to some measures used by market brokerage ConvergEx, there are more ways to skin an economic cat than just the usual ways. Here are a few of it what it calls "Off the Grid Indicators":

The negative

  1. Car prices and sales, which the firm said serve as "an underappreciated cyclical indicator." In particular, the sales pickup of large pickups—to some 190,000 a month—"shows better small business confidence, since that is the primary customer base here."
  2. Food stamps, which at 46.1 million users are at least off their January 2013 peak of 47.8 million.
  3. Silver and gold coin sales, with silver demand from the U.S. Mint, on a rolling six-month basis, down to $78 million, from $111 million a year ago, and gold about a third of what it was.
  4. A higher "quit" rate among job holders—the "take this job and shove it" indicator—that shows confidence in the ability to find another position.
  5. Google searches, which reflect lower demand for "gold coins," "food stamps" and "consignment."
  6. Google autofils for the phrase "I want to buy" are now showing more normal items like houses, cars and stock.

The negative

  1. The Bacon Cheeseburger Index: The fast-food delicacy costs 7.9 percent more now than it did at the same point in 2013, according to Nick Colas, the firm's chief market strategist and seemingly confirmed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS data show bacon prices up 16.4 percent, from a year ago, while ground beef is up 10.5 percent and American cheese is 9.8 percent more expensive. Bread is down 1.5 percent, but you get the picture.
  2. Equity fund flows: Despite a stock market that continues to set new highs, investors are redeeming mutual fund shares—to the tune of $7 billion to $8 billion in May, depending on whose data set you are watching.
  3. Google autofills are still kind of weird: Looking under "I want to sell my," the most popular are "car," "house," "furniture" and..."kidney," which is actually the second most-popular. On a positive note, "hair" and "eggs" are off the list.

For what it's worth

America still loves its guns, and folks are choosing to keep themselves armed. Sales are expected to clock—or maybe we should say "glock"—in at 22 million units this year, nearly triple the 8 million or so typical before the financial crisis began in 2008.

Taken together, Colas believes the numbers represent at least on balance a positive view.

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"Our 'Off the Grid Indicators' paint a cautiously optimistic picture about the state of the U.S. economy. Most of them are marginally positive," he wrote. "And since the March 9th birthday of the current market rally is still many months away, perhaps the bull market isn't going to die soon."

By CNBC's Jeff Cox