February 2012 Philly Fed Survey Improves Slightly

The Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey headlines for February 2012 show the index again improved slightly – and it remains in expansion territory. Survey components new orders and unfilled orders have improved – with both now in expansion territory.

Responses from manufacturing firms polled for this month’s Business Outlook Survey suggest that regional manufacturing activity continued to expand in February. The survey’s broad indicators for general activity, new orders, and shipments all increased from their readings in January. Firms reported near-steady employment levels but an increase in average work hours. More firms reported higher input prices this month, and a sizable share of firms reported price increases for their own manufactured goods. The survey’s broad indicators of future activity fell from levels in recent months but continue to reflect optimism about future manufacturing growth.

Indicators Suggest Continued Expansion

The survey’s broadest measure of manufacturing conditions, the diffusion index of current activity, edged higher from a reading of 7.3 in January to 10.2, its highest level since October (see Chart). The demand for manufactured goods also showed improvement this month: The new orders index was positive for the fifth consecutive month and increased from 6.9 to 11.7. The shipments index also remained positive and increased 9 points. The indexes for both delivery times and unfilled orders recorded slightly positive readings this month, compared with their negative readings in January.

Firms’ responses suggest near-steady levels of employment this month. The current employment index, which has been positive for six consecutive months, fell from a reading of 11.6 in January to 1.1 this month, suggesting little overall growth in employment. The percentage of firms reporting an increase in employment (14 percent) was only slighter greater than the percentage reporting decreases (13 percent). Firms reporting a longer workweek (20 percent) outnumbered those reporting a shorter one (10 percent), and the current workweek index increased 5 points.

Econintersect believes the important elements of this survey are new orders and unfilled orders. The number of respondents who thought new orders and unfilled orders were improving grew this month.

Although this index has many false recession warnings, it is currently above levels associated with past recessions.

Caveats on the use of Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey:

This is a survey, a quantification of opinion – not facts and data. Surveys lead hard data by weeks to months, and can provide early insight into changing conditions. Econintersect finds they do not necessarily end up being consistent compared to hard economic data that comes later, and can miss economic turning points.

This survey is very noisy – and recently showed recessionary conditions. And it is understood from 3Q2011 GDP that the economy was expanding even though this index was in contraction territory. On the positive side, it hit the start and finish of the 2007 recession exactly.

No survey is accurate in projecting employment – and the Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey is no exception. Although there are some general correlation in trends, month-to-month movements have not correlated with the BLS Service Sector Employment data.

Over time, there is a general correlation with real business data – but month-to-month conflicts are frequent.

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