UPDATE (January 1, 2021): The Small Business Pulse Surveys, which the U.S. Census Bureau discontinued in June 2020, resumed in August and are ongoing.
The news — which relies largely on expert opinion, sensational anecdotes, and the performance of stocks — can give us a warped perspective of the real economy. This is true in general, and the problem is particularly acute right now. Amid all this noise, it is wise to periodically turn to authoritative sources of data to get a better sense of what is actually happening. To that end, here are several useful references that provide near real-time snapshots into various aspects of the real economy:
U.S. Census Bureau Small Business Pulse Surveys — The Census Bureau, known primarily for its once-a-decade census, has a broader mandate to produce data about the American people and economy. In response to the current health crisis, the organization has done a good job of tracking small business sentiment on a weekly basis, providing a good (and moderately reassuring) sense for the state of American small businesses, which are generally defined as manufacturing companies with 500 employees or fewer or non-manufacturing businesses with $7.5 million in revenue. This survey has been discontinued as of the end of June but is likely to resume in August.
Foot Traffic — This series of charts from SafeGraph shows the impact of the pandemic on foot traffic in the U.S. and provides great perspective on how different fascets of the economy — regions, industries, brands, and even restaurant categories — are recovering. Home Depot, for instance, has witnessed a rise in customer foot traffic since the beginning of the pandemic, whereas traffic at Starbucks is still over 20% off pre-pandemic levels.
Bloomberg Global Indicators — This dashboard shows 12 regularly updated key economic indicators from around the world. These include PMI (this is an index based on monthly surveys of private sector companies), U.S. employment, and U.S. consumer spending — all of which have an enormous impact on the current state of the economy and its near-term future.
Department of Transportation Transportation Services Index — This index provides trends in passenger and freight transportation and shows that the pandemic has had a relatively minor impact on freight (down 8% from January) relative to passenger transportation (down 93%). The DOT also publishes a Week in Transportation, which provides updated information on the number of people staying home, the number of commercial flights, and the volume of NYC subway ridership.
Mergers & Acquisitions — As a business owner, you may be wondering about the current state of M&A transactions. These fell down precipitously (36%) for the first half of 2020 in the U.S. but are witnessing a rise, as captured by a mid-year update by Bain & Company. The report notes that "Market volatility and hard questions about how much consumer behavior has changed in various industries make it difficult to develop conviction around valuations." Still, there's an ample amount of dry powder out there. BizBuySell also has a useful report on the state of deal activity, which shows similar trends for the smallest of businesses.
Global Trade Update — Finally, Knoema does an excellent job of capturing the state of world trade through its tremendous aggregation of datasets. This provides a long-term view and is not as current as some of the other data, but it provides important context for the U.S. economy, which is the world's largest importer and second largest exporter.