The Census Bureau's June wholesale inventory number shows that wholesalers increased their inventories by just 0.6% in June, well below the 1% increase that analysts and economists had been anticipating. The bureau also downwardly revised May’s wholesale inventory figure from 1.8% to 1.7%.

The question is, what do these numbers, which were released Wednesday and are based on interviews with 34 economists, mean to the economy and investors?

Higher wholesale inventories are usually seen as a good thing for the economy and are counted as part of an economy’s gross domestic product, so a lower inventory figure means a lower GDP figure.

But Jennifer Ribarsky, an economist with the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Statistics, told On Wall Street that it’s not that simple to know whether a lower inventory figure means more or less economic activity.

“You need to see other information, like what is happening to retail sales,” she explained.

This is because wholesale inventories would probably fall if consumers suddenly increased their spending or if retailers began ordering goods and supplies in anticipation of increased consumer spending, which would be a good thing for the economy. But inventories held by wholesalers could also fall if wholesalers decided that consumers were pulling back and so began reducing their own ordering from manufacturers.

While the Census Bureau’s report on retail inventories won’t be out until Friday, given that consumer spending has been weak of late (it rose an anemic 0.1% for the second quarter and was also up just 0.1% for the month June), it seems unlikely that the growth of wholesale inventories in June were lower than expected because of any surprise increase in consumer spending. Household spending was also up just 0.1% in the second quarter, the lowest increase since the second quarter of 2009.

It is more likely that wholesalers in June saw orders from retailers slowing down, so they cut back their own orders from manufacturers and importers.

If Friday’s retail inventories figure bears that theory out, staying flat or showing a parallel decline, it would be another piece of bad news for an economy that some economists fear is already at risk of falling back into a period of recession.