Did you ever see the film "A Christmas Story"? I love the scene where Peter Billingsley’s character, Ralphie, anxiously anticipates and awaits the arrival in the mail of his Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin, which he’d earned the hard way by diligently collecting and mailing in Ovaltine box tops.

Ralphie was literally salivating as he feverishly decoded the message delivered by the announcer at the end of the first Radio Orphan Annie show that aired after he received his pin. And he was literally deflated as though someone had stuck him with the pin when he realized the secret message was actually a commercial: "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

Decoders always hold the promise of access and solution. The reason Ralphie was waiting with bated breath is the same reason we all love the idea of a decoder — that it will providing you access to top secret, insider knowledge with which your life will be forever different — better, ostensibly, than it was before you cracked the code.

But so often, as little Ralphie found out, the promise is empty and the hope of a decoder is false — the decoding itself is fairly meaningless unless the translated message is useful to you.

Book Review
Title: "The Wall Street Journal Guide to the 50 Economic Indicators That Really Matter"
Author: Simon Constable and Robert E. Wright
Publisher: Harper Business, 2011; 304 pages; $15.99

Did you ever see the film "A Christmas Story"? I love the scene where Peter Billingsley’s character, Ralphie, anxiously anticipates and awaits the arrival in the mail of his Orphan Annie Secret Society decoder pin, which he’d earned the hard way by diligently collecting and mailing in Ovaltine box tops.

Ralphie was literally salivating as he feverishly decoded the message delivered by the announcer at the end of the first Radio Orphan Annie show that aired after he received his pin. And he was literally deflated as though someone had stuck him with the pin when he realized the secret message was actually a commercial: "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

Decoders always hold the promise of access and solution. The reason Ralphie was waiting with bated breath is the same reason we all love the idea of a decoder — that it will providing you access to top secret, insider knowledge with which your life will be forever different — better, ostensibly, than it was before you cracked the code.

But so often, as little Ralphie found out, the promise is empty and the hope of a decoder is false — the decoding itself is fairly meaningless unless the translated message is useful to you.

While it won’t help you figure out how to help rescue Orphan Annie from the clutches of her evil adversary, either, "The Wall Street Journal Guide to the 50 Economic Indicators That Really Matter" does not stop at decoding the endless parade of economic data reports, indexes, rates and surveys that are reported in the media every day.

Decode it does, but the book is also organizationally and substantively structured to take every indicator from what it means to what an individual investor should do with that information, in the course of individual investment decision-making.

Thus, the guide soundly achieves its aim of empowering readers to "up-level" both their understanding of economic indicators and their actual investment outcomes, in one fell swoop.

The authors, Simon Constable and Robert E. Wright, took another massive step into high usability when they put their high-tech chops (Constable is a Web broadcast journalist and Wright is a professor and writer) to work in creating a standardized format for the book, complete with apps!

Each of the 50 indicators — which were chosen for their timeliness, accuracy, exoticism (you won’t find the consumer price index in this book), and the degree to which the indicator is tied to the practical economy or investment world — is treated in four parts: a brief description, an infographic to help readers visualize how the measure operates, an "Investment Strategy" list of tips on how to use the indicator in your own investment decisions, and a summary of the key elements of the indicator.

The authors then include a few handy apps, including a tag that indicates whether each indicator leads or lags the market, and a highly valuable executive summary that provides a few powerful, pithy bullets on when and where to find the indicator, what to look for, how to use it to make (or avoid losing) money in your investment strategy, and the risk and reward levels associated with using the particular indicator in your decision-making.

Indicators are grouped based on which of the broad macroeconomic categories of consumption, business investment, government and net exports (the basic components of economic activity) they point to, with an additional category for indicators of fear, inflation and economic uncertainty.

This book is very much written in plain English, but is probably not for the totally uninitiated in matters economic; however, the authors do provide links to free primers to get you up to speed.

Constable and Wright wrote the book in a voice that is lucid, casual and entertaining, yet knowledgeable and clearly oriented around providing answers to questions that real, normal investors actually have; priorities they actually are faced with balancing; and decisions they actually have to make.

If you’re in the phase of your life and your career as an investor where you’d like to better understand the economic news, make more informed investment moves, or avoid the too-slow reaction to economic news that can lead to big losses in economic downturns, I’d strongly recommend you pick up, peruse and frequently revisit this book.

Reading and consulting it will set you up to ask smarter questions of your financial adviser, if you have one, and to course-correct your own strategies around the state of the economy, in any event.

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