Forklifts point to recovery: Unusual economic indicators are proving popular as official figures falter

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The Independent Online
RISING forklift truck sales made the front page of at least one paper last week. Trevor Bowman-Shaw, vice-chairman of the privately owned Boss, forecast a 7 per cent rise in 1993/94, which was said to be a sign that industry was investing - and that the economy was therefore on the move.

It was also a sign that there is increasing faith in non-standard economic indicators as a substitute for official figures, which have proved all too fallible over the past three years. The belief is that the immense complexity of the Treasury model may not be as accurate as a nice simple measure that intuitively seems right.

British forklift sales, measured by the British Industrial Truck Association, certainly look right. Orders rose from the pit of 1981 recession to peak in 1988 but started to slip in 1989 - when most people believed the economy was still booming. According to the forkliftometer, the recession bottomed in 1991.

No one can remember when air passenger numbers from London to Edinburgh were first identified as an economic indicator, but the logic is reasonable: the two cities are Britain's main financial centres. Although BAA's figures show a seasonal pattern, the overall trend is clear. Traffic peaked at 157,000 in July 1990, before going into decline. A year later, 138,000 passengers flew between the cities. The same number travelled in July 1992, and in July this year the figure crept back up to 143,000. More cause for cautious optimism.

Though it does not publish regular figures, British Rail keeps a close eye on London commuter numbers. At the end of 1989, there were 473,000. Now there are 388,000. A spokesman said: 'The numbers have been holding in the 380s for the last three or four months.'

Gerry Robinson, chief executive of Granada - which owns motorway service areas as well as television stations - paints a similar picture based on his favourite indicator, the volume of goods bought at those areas. 'We track it fairly carefully,' he said. 'About the same number of people have been stopping, but the level of spend has varied considerably.' It fell for three years, then flattened out seven or eight months ago. 'A couple of months ago, there were slight signs of a pick-up, but certainly no surge,' he said.

The Oxford-Independent Activity Indicator, published in this newspaper (see Page 4) combines a large number of statistics. Most are mainstream - share prices, vehicle production and house prices for example - but some are slightly offbeat. They include the number of television licences held, and the sales in John Lewis department stores.

John Lewis is the only retailer to tell the world how it is doing: it publishes figures weekly in the magazine sent out to 'partners', or staff. These numbers are erratic, but the trend this year is more optimistic that it has been. Last year, some weeks were better than in 1991, some were worse; this year, sales have consistently outstripped those of 1992.

A notably optimistic off- the-wall indicator comes from the up-market Kensington Nannies agency. Gilly MacWilliam, its owner, said the demand for temps had slumped in the recession as parents started to rely on granny or friends instead when they went on holiday. 'That business has picked up,' she said. 'The number of requests for temporary nannies has risen by 25 to 30 per cent in the last nine months.'

(Photograph omitted)

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