The Least Known Key Economic Indicator

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Those bullish on global economic recovery have their data points: the steady upward climb of world stock markets, three straight months of Chinese manufacturing expansion, the weak dollar. But there are still plenty of skeptics of a rapid and robust turnaround, with their own set of numbers to cite: continued bleeding of private-sector jobs in the U.S. and Europe, more record lows in new home construction, and, er, the weak dollar. (Watch TIME's video of Peter Schiff trash-talking the markets.)

Never before have so many experts and ordinary folk been so busy trying to gauge the timing and strength of the eventual worldwide economic rebound. One of the best indicators is found in the shipping industry. It's global in scope and ever more indispensable in an economy so reliant on international commerce. Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is new evidence out on the open seas that both the bears and bulls can flag to help make their respective cases. (See TIME 100 panelists discuss what's next for capitalism.)

The Baltic Dry Index is the worldwide benchmark for shipping rates of raw materials, and it has registered some eye-popping gains over the past month. The London-based index registered its 23rd straight daily gain on Wednesday, closing at 4,291, its highest mark since September and the longest streak of gains since July 2006. Daily rates for the largest Capesize ships, which typically carry iron ore, rose 6.8% on Wednesday to $93,197. Just five months ago, daily ship-rental rates were hovering just above $2,000, about the price of a great seat on opening day at the new Yankee Stadium.

Baltic Index president Jeremy Penn cautions that shipping rates can sometimes fluctuate dramatically, and are often driven by specific factors such as carrier availability in key locations. Indeed the current boost is best explained by Chinese steel production demand and a shortage of the Capesize vessels to haul the iron ore. Penn notes that it is not yet clear whether the core manufacturing that is turning again in China is linked to coming export demand or domestic infrastructure investment. "There are always quirks in the pricing," he notes. "And at the moment it seems a very China-centric market." (Read "Plunge in Trade Is a Boon for Singapore Ship Suppliers.")

Still, there is inevitably a global dimension to tracking bulk rates. "It's the price for moving raw materials, which sit at the beginning of the production chain," Penn explains. "We can say that the complete lockup of world trade we saw at the end of last year has eased considerably." Penn concludes that his index "is useful to look at, but it's not the holy grail."

That's to say, before you run out to start an import-export business, take a look at some other numbers in the shipping world that are far less robust. Shipping by container, typically finished goods, remains troublingly cheap, a sign that consumer products are still not flowing between continents. The price for a 20-foot equivalent unit (TEU) container on an East Asia–to-Europe voyage is reportedly currently maxing out at a paltry $500. Though the pace of the drop in rates has slowed, there are signs that charter prices have still not bottomed out, having dipped below the record lows of the 2002 stock-market crunch. According to London ship broker Clarkson, a 3,500-TEU gearless Panamax vessel — the largest vessel that can go through the Panama Canal — pulls in $6,500 a day, down 34% on the $9,500 it was charging in February.

One shipping-industry insider notes that any evaluation of transport prices must include not only demand (how much cargo there is to be hauled), but also supply (the quantity of carrier capacity). The steady boom of world trade over the past decade prompted a major shipbuilding spree, with many vessels slated for completion in the coming months and years. "There are new and larger ships on order," notes the source. "I fear that overall rates will not be as responsive to the recovery as a whole." In other words, just as skyrocketing prices in raw-material transport don't guarantee a robust global recovery, nor would a sluggish rebound in shipping profits preclude a bullish outlook for the overall economy.

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