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'Simple' data is the key to economy: UBS economist

Upbeat economic data haven't made for upbeat markets in 2016. Much of the focus, according to Drew Matus, deputy chief U.S. economist at UBS, has been on GDP. But his key to the U.S. economy is diving into "simple data" like weekly jobless claims.

"If claims don't go up, nothing bad is happening," Matus told CNBC's "Worldwide Exchange" on Thursday. "If something bad happens, someone's going to get fired. That's the key to my forecasting right now."

Claims are increasing, however, in the energy sector. Oil and gas companies continue to scale back production amid a global crude glut and record-low prices. This bleeds into jobless data.

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"Absent energy, claims would be at even lower levels," Matus said. "People aren't being laid off anywhere else."

Equities have suffered along with oil this year. Matus said the markets are unwilling to believe positive economic data. Instead of GDP and production, he's measuring U.S. economic health with "simpler" data like bank loans, weekly jobless claims and ISM surveys.

"It doesn't require a Ph.D. to interpret the numbers," Matus said. "They're easy, people have been doing them since the 1940s."

He's also looking to the consumer and U.S. consumer services as a lynchpin for the economy.

"If consumers have jobs, and they're seeing even marginal wage gain, then consumption will hold up," Matus said. "If consumption holds up then we're fine."

Half of U.S. GDP is spending on services, which Matus says offers stable growth, and is "basically the U.S. economy on autopilot."

Banks were the worst performing sector last year. Matus pointed to worrisome credit conditions that could feed into the real economy, but said increased bank lending is a positive theme. Mortgage loans, commercial industrial lending and consumer loans are all expanding.

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"What [Ben] Bernanke would have called the core loan growth, loans that show the real economy, are all expanding," Matus said. "And on a year-over-year basis are the highest it's been in a long time."