NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Dow Jones surging past 10,000? The U.S. Treasury yield curve steepening? Falling jobless claims? Or busier restaurants?
There are certain indicators tracked by economists and strategists to judge whether the U.S. economy is improving.
But what about rising U.S. auto sales? Top investment strategists at the Reuters Investment Outlook Summit this week said that's a barometer of the economy that is not getting enough attention.
"Autos were just enormous," said Barry Ritholtz, director of equity research at Fusion IQ in New York.
On June 2, U.S. seasonally adjusted auto sales hit a rate of 11.63 million in May. A year ago the rate was 9.87 million.
At its most recent peak in 2005, U.S. light vehicle sales reached nearly 17 million units, and the average rate was 16 million in the five years to 2008.
Ritholtz doesn't necessarily see sales hitting a 15 million rate anytime soon, but finds the current trends positive.
"You are not buying autos unless you can get your credit approved, which is not easy in this environment, and you have a job to pay for it," he said.
That's a signal the economy is slowly building a base.
A gradually improving U.S. job market is seen as the driving force behind an expected increase in U.S. retail sales for an eighth straight month. The retail sales data is due on Friday.
Retail sales are estimated to have climbed 0.2 percent last month following a 0.4 percent rise in April, according to median estimates of economists polled by Reuters. Excluding cars, sales were seen increasing 0.1 percent.
"I still think auto sales are going to recover to a much higher level. I think -- we are still thinking it is going to be, within a few years, back to 15 million, 16 million," said Tom Lee, chief U.S. equity strategist at JPMorgan.
"And as you know, that's going to have a huge effect on economic growth," he added.
The evidence can also be seen in the credit markets, where prices for auto-related debt have recovered.
For example, Ford Motor Co's (F.N) bonds have rallied since reaching lows when stress on the auto sector peaked in 2009.
Ford's 7.45 percent bond due 2013 has increased to 86 cents on the dollar from as low as 12 cents in November 2008, according to data by MarketAxess.
On June 8, Moody's Investors Service revised its outlook for the U.S. automotive parts suppliers to positive from stable, citing growing demand for vehicle parts as sales rise.
The firm expects sales of 13.5 million units in 2011, an increase of 500,000. The 2010 forecast was unchanged at 11.5 million.
Raising capital and the trading of existing debt for the auto sector has improved from a year ago.
"We see a dramatic pick-up in the auto business, for example," said Andy O'Brien, co-head of the syndicated leveraged finance group at JPMorgan.
"When you look at where the credit of some of the auto companies were trading 20s and 30 cents on the dollar, and now they are back up in the mid-90s as an example of an impressive recovery," he said.
Additional reporting by Karen Brettell; Editing by Leslie Adler