FREE NEWSLETTER: Econintersect sends a nightly newsletter highlighting news events of the day, and providing a summary of new articles posted on the website. Econintersect will not sell or pass your email address to others per our privacy policy. You can cancel this subscription at any time by selecting the unsubscribing link in the footer of each email.

posted on 22 June 2015

May 2015 CFNAI Super Index Continues to Show USA Economic Softness.

Written by Steven Hansen

The economy was growing insignificantly faster last month based on the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) 3 month moving (3MA) average - but continues to grow below the historical trend rate of growth (but well above levels associated with recessions).

The three month moving average of the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) which provides a summary quantitative value for all the economic data being released - improved marginally from -0.20 (originally reported as -0.23 last month) to -0.16.


  • This index IS NOT accurate in real time (see caveats below) - and it did miss the start of the 2007 recession.
  • The headlines talk about the single month index which is not used for economic forecasting. Economic predictions are based on the 3 month moving average. The single month index historically is very noisy and the 3 month moving average would be the way to view this index in any event.
  • There was no market forecast published this month.
  • This index is a rear view mirror of the economy.

A value of zero for the index would indicate that the national economy is expanding at its historical trend rate of growth, and that a level below -0.7 would be indicating a recession was likely underway. Econintersect uses the three month trend because the index is very noisy (volatile).

CFNAI Three Month Moving Average (blue line) with Historical Recession Line (red line)

As the 3 month index is the trend line, the trend is currently showing a marginally decelerating rate of growth. As stated: this index only begins to show what is happening in the economy after many months of revision following the index's first release.

CFNAI Three Month Moving Average Showing Month-over-Month Change

The CFNAI is a weighted average of 85 indicators drawn from four broad categories of data: 1) production and income; 2) employment, unemployment, and hours; 3) personal consumption and housing; and 4) sales, orders, and inventories.

CFNAI Components - Production and Income (orange line), Employment / Unemployment & Hours (green line), Personal Consumption & Housing (blue line), and Sales / Orders & Inventory (red line)

Low Personal Consumption has been a headwind on the index for the last two years. The other three elements of the CFNAI have taken turns dragging the index down - although this month 3 of 4 elements were neutral or negative. The Chicago Fed's explanation of the movement this month:

The Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) moved up to -0.17 in May from -0.19 in April. Two of the four broad categories of indicators that make up the index increased from April, but only the employment, unemployment, and hours category made a positive contribution to the index in May.

The index's three-month moving average, CFNAI-MA3, increased slightly to -0.16 in May from -0.20 in April. May's CFNAI-MA3 suggests that growth in national economic activity was somewhat below its historical trend. The economic growth reflected in this level of the CFNAI-MA3 suggests subdued inflationary pressure from economic activity over the coming year.

The CFNAI Diffusion Index, which is also a three-month moving average, was unchanged at -0.13 in May. Thirty-five of the 85 individual indicators made positive contributions to the CFNAI in May, while 50 made negative contributions. Forty-three indicators improved from April to May, while 41 indicators deteriorated and one was unchanged. Of the indicators that improved, 21 made negative contributions.

The contribution from production-related indicators to the CFNAI ticked up to -0.17 in May from -0.19 in April. Industrial production was down 0.2 percent in May after decreasing 0.5 percent in April. The sales, orders, and inventories category made a neutral contribution to the CFNAI in May, up slightly from -0.01 in April.

The contribution from employment-related indicators to the CFNAI remained at +0.10 in May. Nonfarm payrolls increased by 280,000 in May, following a gain of 221,000 in the previous month; however, the unemployment rate edged up to 5.5 percent in May from 5.4 percent in April.

The contribution of the personal consumption and housing category to the CFNAI was steady at -0.09 in May. Housing starts decreased to 1,036,000 annualized units in May from 1,165,000 in April. However, housing permits increased to 1,275,000 annualized units in May from 1,140,000 in the previous month.

The CFNAI was constructed using data available as of June 18, 2015. At that time, May data for 51 of the 85 indicators had been published.

The CFNAI explained:

With the significant amount of monthly backward revisions occurring, the three month moving average provides a better metric for economic activity levels.

Econintersect considers the CFNAI one of the best single metrics to gauge the real economic activity for the U.S. - and puts the entire month's economic releases into their proper perspective, although it is almost a month after the fact. It correlates well and historically has lead GDP - however its correlation post 2007 recession (New Normal) is uncertain. [graph below updated through May 2012 CFNAI]

As the CFNAI is a summary index, the data must be assumed correct to give it credibility. This assumption has been justified in the past because the index has proven to have a good correlation to the overall economy. When using this index, it is trend direction which is important - not necessarily the value when the index is above -0.7, the historical boundary between expansion and contraction.

Caveats on the Use of the Chicago Fed National Activity Index

The index is quite noisy, and the only way to view the data is to use the 3 month moving average. As this index is never set in concrete, each month a good portion (usually from January 2001 onwards) of the data is backwardly revised slightly. The most significant revision is in the data released in the last six months due to revisions of the 85 indices which are embodied into the CFNAI.

Even the 3 month moving average has over time significant backward revision. This is due both to changing methodology and backward revisions of this index's data sources. This point is important as the authors of this index have stated that -0.7 value is the separation between economic expansion and contraction. The graph below shows the difference between the original published index values and the values of the index as of August 2011.

This index seems to continuously creep - and when using this index in real time,Econintersect would assume the index values when first released could easily be off in a range +0.2 to -0.2 as the data in the future will be continuously revised. However, there are times when the uncertainty in real time can be much larger. For seven consecutive months in the Great Recession, backward revisions ranged from -0.7 to -0.9. In such times of severe economic stress the CFNAI has little real time accuracy, although it still definitely was showing that the economy was bad. It simply did not reflect exactly how bad in real time.

We can compare the CFNAI to ECRI's coincident index which is released monthly almost in real time. It is true that using ECRI's coincident index, the year-over-year rate of change is at recession levels - however, the CFNAI's rate of change provides a different conclusion.

In real time, ECRI's coincident indicator may be providing a better yardstick for the Wall Street economy. While in hindsight, CFNAI seems more intuitive - but is inaccurate in real time because of backward revision. GDP lives in its own world (as opposed to what economy is experienced by the population in their own lives) and has general correlation to most broad forecasts or coincident indexes as a selected view of the overall economy. However, I do not believe GDP has a good correlation to the Main Street economy.

Old Analysis Blog

New Analysis Blog

Econintersect Economic Forecasts Econintersect Economic Forecasts
Past CFNAI posts Past CFNAI posts

>>>>> Scroll down to view and make comments <<<<<<

Permanent link to most recent post on this topic

Click here for Historical Releases Listing

Make a Comment

Econintersect wants your comments, data and opinion on the articles posted.  As the internet is a "war zone" of trolls, hackers and spammers - Econintersect must balance its defences against ease of commenting.  We have joined with Livefyre to manage our comment streams.

To comment, using Livefyre just click the "Sign In" button at the top-left corner of the comment box below. You can create a commenting account using your favorite social network such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn or Open ID - or open a Livefyre account using your email address.

You can also comment using Facebook directly using he comment block below.

Econintersect Economic Releases


Print this page or create a PDF file of this page
Print Friendly and PDF

The growing use of ad blocking software is creating a shortfall in covering our fixed expenses. Please consider a donation to Econintersect to allow continuing output of quality and balanced financial and economic news and analysis.

Take a look at what is going on inside of
Main Home
Analysis Blog
Comments on Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’, Part III
Taking a Wrench to Healthcare
News Blog
Baby Remarkably Survives Being Born With Heart Beating Outside Her Chest
October 2016 Conference Board Consumer Confidence Declines
Richmond Fed Manufacturing Survey Remains In Contraction In October 2016.
October 2016 Chemical Activity Barometer Continues to Signal Improving Economic Growth
Case-Shiller Home Price Index August 2016 Year-over-Year Rate of Growth Marginally Improves
Russia Falls Into Old Habits
Infographic Of The Day: Commodity Update, Is The Summer Slump Over
Early Headlines: Asia Stocks Mixed, Oil Mixed, Voting Fraud, Pres. Forecast Little Changed, CETA Not Dead, Generous Iraqis, Terrorists In Pakistan, Duterte Wants Divorce From US And More
October 24, 2016 Weather and Climate Report - La Nina / El Nino?
Most Read Articles Last Week Ending 22 October
Londoners Most Uneasy About Chatting To Strangers
Average Gasoline Prices for Week Ending 24 October 2016 Now Higher Than One Year Ago
Earnings And Economic Reports: Week Starting 24 October 2016
Investing Blog
Slow Motion Torture
The Week Ahead: How Long For This Trading Range?
Opinion Blog
What Triggers Collapse?
The Beer Goggles Stock Market
Precious Metals Blog
Preparing For Post-Election Social Unrest
Live Markets
25Oct2016 Market Update: Consumer Confidence Falls Below 100, WTI Crude Falls To 49, US Dollar Falls From 99 And Gold Rises To 1274
Amazon Books & More

.... and keep up with economic news using our dynamic economic newspapers with the largest international coverage on the internet
Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

Crowdfunding ....



Analysis Blog
News Blog
Investing Blog
Opinion Blog
Precious Metals Blog
Markets Blog
Video of the Day


Asia / Pacific
Middle East / Africa
USA Government

RSS Feeds / Social Media

Combined Econintersect Feed

Free Newsletter

Marketplace - Books & More

Economic Forecast

Content Contribution



  Top Economics Site Contributor TalkMarkets Contributor Finance Blogs Free PageRank Checker Active Search Results Google+

This Web Page by Steven Hansen ---- Copyright 2010 - 2016 Econintersect LLC - all rights reserved