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You may want to add sales of home pregnancy tests to your list of key market indicators.

A sudden slowdown in people's attempts to conceive children signals trouble just ahead for the economy as a whole, according to a new research papers.

In fact, an abrupt decline in new pregnancies over the course of a few months appears to be a more accurate indicator of impending downturns than the usual economic number crunching.

"Our work raises the question of whether non-traditional indicators – like conceptions – might be used for the purpose of forecasting," write Kasey Buckles and Daniel Hungerman of the University of Notre Dame and Steven Lugauer of the University of Kentucky. Their paper, Is Fertility a Leading Economic Indicator?, concludes "that conceptions fall before recessions begin and that conceptions compare well with other economic indicators in anticipating recessions."

Other economists have observed that births often fall after a recession begins. This makes sense: If you're worried about your job, you have good reason to put off expanding your family. But what the researchers point out in their new paper is that there is a time lag involved – a falling birth rate implies a falling conception rate nine months earlier.

This decline in conceptions doesn't come after a recession has started, or even at the same time. Rather, it precedes the start of a recession by several months and often comes when the economy still looks to be thriving by traditional measures.

Consider the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. In late 2007, the stock market was booming and a poll of chief executives found optimism among business leaders. It was not until late spring of 2008 that Bear Stearns collapsed, and not until September of that year that Lehman Brothers failed, plunging the world's financial system into chaos.

Yet, conceptions had already started falling in mid-2007, according to the researchers. The total number of conceptions in the United States was more than 100,000 lower in the first three quarters of 2008 than in the comparable period two years earlier, and it was falling rapidly.

A similar pattern has unfolded in each of the past three U.S. recessions. In each case, seasonally adjusted conception rates fell sharply before the official recession began and turned negative before standard measures of economic growth did.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. When the researchers peered further back into history, they found that conceptions did not plunge ahead of recessions before the 1990s.

The increasing number of women in the labour force as well as more widespread contraception may explain why conceptions are now so sensitive to economic conditions. U.S. families appear to have become remarkably sensitive to the short-term outlook and will put off having kids when they sense possible trouble ahead.

Over the past three U.S. recessions in 1991, 2001 and 2008, a sudden decline in conceptions did as well or better than several traditional indicators of economic vitality – such as the consumer confidence index, durable goods purchases and growth in housing prices – when it came to warning about impending downturns, according to the researchers.

To be sure, it's not clear if the link between sudden falls in the conception rate and recessions holds outside the United States. It's also important to note that there has been a general downward trend in conceptions and birth rates in most developed countries in recent decades. The sudden drops that the researchers considered are short-term shifts within this larger trend.

Still, the link between recessions and fertility in the U.S. deserves attention. If nothing else, people's willingness to have children serves as an honest gauge of their general optimism, because as former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott once said, "Children are the ultimate vote of confidence in the future."

For economists and investors, the problem is how to track conceptions in real time, rather than waiting for official statistics on births several months later. The researchers turned to data, compiled by private market-research firms, on the sales of products related to pregnancy. They found that retail volumes of ovulation and fertility test kits could be used to estimate conceptions. So could broader measures that tracked the sales of pregnancy-related items, such as multivitamins and contraception.

Perhaps such figures will soon be combined into a new indicator. For now, the simplest advice may be to look around you: If nobody is pregnant, it's time to start worrying about the economy.

It's important for companies to have a strategy for transferring knowledge from one generation of workers to the next.

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