Put your finger on the pulse of Maine’s economy. What do you feel?

Put your finger on the pulse of Maine’s economy. Is it the steady beat of jobs, jobs, jobs that you feel?

Well, it’s more than that and it can be difficult to measure or even see in one place.

So, I’ve started gathering some of the key indicators of how Maine’s economy is doing — some that hopefully give perspective on what’s coming (like building permits, for one example).

All of the measures selected here are available monthly or more frequently and I will update them accordingly, giving a little broader look at how the economy is doing in as close to real-time as we can get.

Hopefully, that will give a more dynamic and current picture of the state’s economy.

(The dashboard will also have a permanent spot on the blog, up in the top navigation bar, at this page.)

Here’s a quick walk-through of the data in each tab:

Big picture

Maine’s economic output is lagging the rest of the region and the United States, as tracked by an index put together monthly by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. The economic activity index, or coincident index, puts together a range of employment, salary and other statistics about state economies to try to put the shape of the economy into one number, indexed to the month of July 1992.

In general, the best real-time indicator of how the economy is doing comes through monthly state sales tax figures. The above chart looks just at “general merchandise” sales in an effort to get a picture of changes in consumer confidence. Since the recession, spending in that category has carried steady positive momentum, with some outliers. A consistent change in direction for spending in that category could be a sign of broader problems (general merchandise spending contracted in eight months of the year in 2008 and 10 months of the year in 2009).

And for the detail that lacks in tracking Chapter 7 bankruptcies — the most common type — the figures give a sense of how many people or corporations decide they have financial commitments they can’t meet in near real-time.

State sales tax

The different ways of slicing state sales tax data gives another look at rather timely and accurate figures on real economic activity in the state. With that, there’s no seasonal adjustments to the data, so the total sales will show peaks and troughs for certain areas (like building supplies, for instance).

Just for guidance, “other retail” includes specialty stores and the like. General merchandise includes general retailers. Mike Allen, the associate commissioner for tax policy at Maine Revenue Services, told me in December that he looks to the general merchandise sales categories as reflective of spending “where your typical household is going.”


Of course, jobs are an important metric of how the state’s economy is faring. The data is available monthly, but the exact estimates of jobs in the state are shaky for the most recent months. That’s because they’re based on survey information and are later updated with hard data from the unemployment insurance system and other sources.

The panel on jobs couples trends in monthly estimates of nonfarm payroll jobs with the percentage of job seekers who can’t find work (the unemployment rate) and the number of initial filings for unemployment insurance.

Wage data has a longer lag time at the state level, but you can find 2013 statistics for median household income and other income measures at the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.


There’s a mix of trying to look back and forward here, with building permit trends and construction hiring giving a sense of new home construction.

The figures at top for home sales and median sale prices track the pace of change in home sales volume by month, compared with the previous year, and price trends show you not only that February could be the time to buy a house but also the longer-term trend in prices in the state.

In conclusion…

Please do send me suggestions for other measures that you think fit this bill or that you think should be included in this dashboard or others — Tweet, email.

I’ll be drawing attention to changes in individual metrics as new batches of data are added or as measures show particularly notable movements.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.