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Markets

How to Spot the Bottom

When three of these six benchmarks turn around, you'll know the recovery is well under way.

JOBLESS CLAIMS

What it is: A weekly report on the number of first-time filings for unemployment claims nationwide, released every Thursday morning.

Why it matters: It's the earliest indicator of whether the pace of layoffs is slowing.

What to look for: A four-week moving average hitting 550,000 and continuing to decline would signal that companies have stopped slashing jobs.

DURABLE GOODS

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What it is: A monthly report on new orders for long-lasting manufactured goods (think household appliances, machinery and so on), released toward the end of each month.

Why it matters: Business executives commit to purchases of these big-ticket items if they anticipate increased demand.

What to look for: A two- or three-month uptrend in orders -- excluding defense, aircraft and other transportation equipment -- would presage an expanding economy.

EXISTING-HOME SALES

What it is: The number of single-family homes, condos and co-ops sold each month, reported on or about the 25th of each month.

Why it matters: Housing and related industries are a huge part of the U.S. economy. The economy can't grow much until consumers believe home values are no longer in free fall.

What to look for: Two or three consecutive months of growth would be a sign that investors and would-be homeowners are back in the market. (It'll take at least a few more months before values stop falling, though.)

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CONSUMER CONFIDENCE

What it is: A gauge of how consumers feel about the economy and their personal finances. The most widely cited index, from The Conference Board, is released on the last Tuesday of each month.

Why it matters: When consumers are worried about the future, they hunker down and spend less.

What to look for: An index in the 60s would suggest that consumers will be less tightfisted.

RETAIL SALES

What it is: A tally of the value of goods purchased from more than three million U.S. retail sellers, reported on or about the 13th of each month.

Why it matters: Consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the U.S. economy. Retail sales are about half of that.

What to look for: Two to three straight months of increasing sales would mean consumers have more money in their pockets and are willing to spend it.

INTEREST-RATE SPREAD

What it is: A reflection of lending risk. A good benchmark is the difference between the yield on risk-free, three-month Treasury bills and LIBOR, a rate at which banks lend to each other.

Why it matters: A wide spread indicates lenders' concerns about the health of other banks and spells tight credit for business borrowers, choking off growth.

What to look for: A narrowing of the gap to about one-half of a percentage point would signal improving health in the banking sector.

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