A huge—and misleading—economic number may be ahead

Wall Street is looking for a gargantuan economic reading this week. The big question is whether it matters.

Economists polled by Reuters are looking for durable goods orders to show a 5 percent increase, versus last month's 0.7 percent rise. However, economists think the increase is powered mostly by new orders from Boeing, which booked 324 orders in July, a single-month record for the company. Durables ex-transport, by comparison, are only expected to rise by 0.6 percent.

"It's all Boeing," said Robert Stein, an economist at First Trust Advisors and a known master of durable goods. "People shouldn't read too much into it, but it is important in the sense that Boeing orders show a general improvement in the economy. Airlines wouldn't be that optimistic about purchasing planes if they didn't think the economy was so good."

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Stein actually expects an above-consensus increase of 17 percent. That would actually mark an all-time high for the data series (surpassing a 16.6 percent increase in June 2000). But as for his estimate of the ex-transportation number, Stein is looking for just 0.1 percent.

"I think it leads the economy a little bit, but the reading is obviously volatile, so you have to take it with a grain of salt," he said.

An employee works on the nose of a Boeing airplane at the company's facility in Everett, Washington.
Mike Kane | Bloomberg | Getty Images
An employee works on the nose of a Boeing airplane at the company's facility in Everett, Washington.

Jacob Oubina, senior economist at RBC, is similarly hesitant about reading too much from Boeing.

"It's obviously a good sign when a major aircraft manufacturer gets 300-plus orders in a month, but the fact that they're orders means that they could get canceled," Oubina told CNBC.com. Still, he notes that "you're looking at something close to $100 billion in Boeing orders, which is nothing to sneeze at. That's a lot of airplanes, a lot of money and it obviously will be a positive for the economy down the road. It just doesn't do much in the here and-now."

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Still, traders are almost certain to look at an outsized number in the Tuesday report as a positive sign.

"Durables is the most important number we get next week," said Jim Iuorio of TJM Institutional Services. "The estimates are extremely high, and I know that people are going to say 'Oh, that's all predicting about airplanes and that's why,' but I think that matters.

"The airlines will be buying aircraft because they think they're going to use them," he added.

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg

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