Written by Steven Hansen
The economy is always in a state of flux. Writing this summary forces a review of the economic dynamics once a month. This September forecast even surprised me to a degree – as the Econintersect Economic Index (EEI) is now clearly showing an uptrend.
Before you break out the champagne, this is a relative index – it shows that tomorrow will be better than today, but does not quantify the amount of the improvement. It appears the downward trends have at least temporarily abated.
Econintersect prefers to forecast the economy using non-monetary measures which of late have been more stable than the dollar based expenditures, incomes or stock market indicators.
This post will summarize the:
- leading indicators,
- predictive portions of coincident indicators,
- review the technical recession indicators, and
- then interpret our own index – Econintersect Economic Index (EEI) – which is built of mostly non-monetary “things” that have shown to be indicative of direction of the Main Street economy at least 30 days in the future.
- the “New Normal” economy is pulsing or growing in unpredictable spurts. These spurts are evident in ECRI’s WLI, Econintersect Economic Index, and the Chicago Fed’s National Activity Index (CFNAI). This makes the economy at times seem like it is gaining traction, and other times about to fall off a cliff. These economic pulses cause some to believe the economy is heading towards a recession – as forecasts use growth rate-of-change to assess economic trends. Further, these cycles are out of phase with the calendar – and the commonly used seasonal adjusting methodologies seem to exaggerate these cycles.;
- the consumer is still consuming – but the rate of spending relative to income continues to degrade. There is much nuance with consumer spending and the current background is available here;
Seasonally Adjusted Spending’s Ratio to Income (a declining ratio means consumer is spending less of its Income)
- Joe Sixpack’s economic position may be strengthening. Econintersect is experimenting with an economic index whose underlying principle is to estimate how well off Joe feels. The index was documented at the bottom of the July 2012 forecast. Joe and his richer friends are the economic drivers. Joe is the blue line in the graph below, and is not close to the levels associated with past recessions.
Joe Sixpack Index
- the poor jobs growth in the last few months is commensurate with the poor economic fundamentals.
- Econintersect views the relationship between the year-over-year growth rate of non-farm private employment and the year-over-year real growth rate of retail sales. As long as retail sales grows faster than the rate of employment gains (above zero on the below graph) – a recession is not imminent.
Growth Relationship Between Retail Sales and Non-Farm Private Employment – Above zero represents economic expansion
- Most economic releases are based on seasonally adjusted data which is revised for months after issuance so a contraction in a particular release may not be obvious for many months. The Econintersect forecast is based on non-adjusted data which for the most part is not subject to revision.
The Leading Indicators
The leading indicators are to a large extent monetary based (in the case of ECRI it is a knowledgeable guess as the makeup of this index is proprietary). Econintersect‘s primary worry in using monetary based methodologies to forecast the economy is the current extraordinary monetary policy which may (or may not) be affecting historical relationships. This will only be known in future hindsight.
Econintersect does not use any portion of the leading indicators in its economic index.
ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) – ECRI has been strongly arguing for almost a year that a recession is coming. In July, they stated the country is currently in a recession. ECRI’s WLI index value has been jumping around due to backward revision – but now is marginally in negative territory. The index is hovering around zero which means the economy six month from today will be as bad as it is today. A positive number shows an expansion of the business economy, while a negative number is contraction.
Current ECRI WLI Index
The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Indicator (LEI) – The LEI’s six-month growth rate fell slightly, but remains in expansionary territory and well above its growth at the end of 2011. Looking at the historical relationships in this index must be in negative territory many months (6 or more) before a recession has occurred.
Leading Index for the United States from the Philadelphia Fed – This index is the super index for all the state indices.
The leading index for each state predicts the six-month growth rate of the state’s coincident index. In addition to the coincident index, the models include other variables that lead the economy: state-level housing permits (1 to 4 units), state initial unemployment insurance claims, delivery times from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing survey, and the interest rate spread between the 10-year Treasury bond and the 3-month Treasury bill.
Leading Indicators Bottom Line – In the case of ECRI, they have several indices only available to clients. ECRI is saying the preponderance of their data (including the WLI) is indicating a recession is here. Both the Conference Board (LEI) and the Philly Fed’s Leading Index is saying economic expansion will continue as far as their indexes can see. These are completely opposite opinions.
Forward Looking Coincident Indicators
Here is a run through of the most economically predictive coincident indices which Econintersect believes can have up to a six month warning of an impending recession – and do not have a history of producing false warnings.
Be warned that every recession has different characteristics – and a particular index may not contract during a recession, or start contracting after the recession is already underway. In all the data Econintersect analyzes, there are no recessionary indications currently evident.
Truck transport portion of employment – to search for impending recessions. Look at the year-over-year zero growth line. For the last two recessions it has offered a six month warning of an impending recession with no false warnings. Transport is an economic warning indicator because it moves goods well before final retail sales occur. Until people stop eating or buying goods, transport will remain one of the primary economic pulse points.
Transport employment growth is far above the zero growth line. As transport provides a six month recession warning – the implication is that any possible recession is further than six months away.
Rail – Weekly and monthly Econintersect evaluates rail movements. As stated in Truck transport employment data above, movement of goods and materials have logical and provable economic correlations. Rail particularly moves materials and finished goods months before final sales to the ultimate consumer.
Current Rail Data
Here rail year-to-date is contracting over 2011 levels – mostly due to coal. If coal is removed from the equation, growth has been running between 2.5% and 3.5% per year (slightly less good than the data one month ago). Coal is an alternate fuel, and the alternate now appears to be natural gas which is a pipeline product running at record levels.
Business Activity sub-index of ISM Non-Manufacturing – this index has been declining for most of 2012. Yet in July it had a strong recovery – the overall trend channel is still in a decline.
Predictive Coincident Index Bottom Line – Econintersect believes true economic activity (not monetary based GDP) was expanding in July and August 2012 somewhere around 2% (plus/ minus) in many sectors of the economy using non-monetary pulse points based on these indices shown above, and other indices which Econintersect are indicative of the real economy. This was again slightly less good than last months look at the coincident data.
Technical Requirements of a Recession
Sticking to the current technical recession criteria used by the NBER:
A recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales. A recession begins just after the economy reaches a peak of activity and ends as the economy reaches its trough. Between trough and peak, the economy is in an expansion. Expansion is the normal state of the economy; most recessions are brief and they have been rare in recent decades.
….. The committee places particular emphasis on two monthly measures of activity across the entire economy: (1) personal income less transfer payments, in real terms and (2) employment. In addition, we refer to two indicators with coverage primarily of manufacturing and goods: (3) industrial production and (4) the volume of sales of the manufacturing and wholesale-retail sectors adjusted for price changes.
Here is a one graph says it all looking at the month-over-month change (note that multipliers have been used to make change more obvious).
Month-over-Month Growth Personal Income less transfer payments (blue line), Employment (red line), Industrial Production (green line), Business Sales (orange line)
In the above graph, if a line falls below the 0 (black line) – that sector is contracting from the previous month. At his point, only business sales fell into contraction – but income, employment, and industrial production clearly shows growth. Your interpretation of graph should be that the economy was not recessing in July 2010. Again, this is a rear view mirror, is subject to revision, and is not predictive of where the economy is going. Another way to look at the same data sets is in the graph below which uses indexed real values from the trough of the Great Recession.
Econintersect believes that the New Normal economy has different dynamics than most economic models.
Economic Forecast Data
Econintersect‘s Economic Index (EEI) is designed to spot Main Street and business economic turning points. This forecast is based on the index’s three month moving average.
The EEI is a non-monetary based economic index which counts “things” that have shown to be indicative of direction of the Main Street economy at least 30 days in the future. Note that the Econintersect Economic Index is not constructed to mimic GDP (although there are general correlations), but tries to model the economic rate of change seen by business and Main Street.
Econintersect Economic Index (EEI) with a 3 Month Moving Average (red line)
The red line on the EEI is the 3 month moving average which is at 0.60 (up from last month’s 0.48), while the monthly index rose strongly from 0.40 to 0.70. The economic forecast is based on the 3 month moving average as the monthly index is very noisy. Readings below 0.4 indicate a weak economy, while readings below 0.0 indicate contraction.
A positive value of the index represents economic expansion. If the economy was growing at the same rate, this index would return a value of 0.50. This month’s value of 0.60 shows the economy’s rate of growth is improving.
Consumer and business behavior (which is the basis of the EEI) either lead or follow old fashion industrial age measures such as GDP depending on the dynamic which is driving the economy. The main street sector of the economy lagged GDP in entering and exiting the 2007 Great Recession.
As Econintersect continues to back check its model, from time-to-time makes slight adjustments to the data sets and methodology to align it with the actual coincident data. To date, when any realignment was done, no change altered trend lines or recession indications. Most changes to date were to remove data sets which had unacceptable backward revisions or discontinued series. Documentation for this index was in the October 2011 forecast.
Jobs Growth Forecast Improves
The Econintersect Jobs Index is forecasting non-farm private jobs growth of 150,000.
Comparing BLS Non-Farm Employment YoY Improvement (blue line, left axis) with Econintersect Employment Index (red line, left axis) and The Conference Board ETI (yellow line, right axis)
The Econintersect Jobs Index is based on economic elements which create jobs, and (explanation here) measures the historical dynamics which lead to the creation of jobs. It measures general factors, but it is not precise (quantitatively) as many specific factors influence the exact timing of hiring. This index should be thought of as a measurement of jobs creation pressures.
At the present time, jobs growth year-over-year is averaging above the levels forecast by the Econintersect’s Jobs Index. The table below lists the private non-farm payroll forecasts against the current (not original headline) BLS private non-farm payrolls. Please note that the BLS data continuously is revised, and this employment forecast section of the economic forecast uses the most current BLS estimates.
Still, the Econintersect Jobs Index was predicting fewer jobs then are actually occurring. A discussion of the problem is in Ben Bernanke and the Puzzle of Employment. In the last three months, the index has been over estimating.
Econintersect Employment Forecast (blue line), Fudged Forecast* (red line), and Actual Current Estimate of BLS Non-Farm Jobs Month-over-Month Growth (green line)
* fudged growth based on deviation between forecast & current actual using a 3 month rolling average
A fudge factor (based on deviance over the last3 months between the BLS actual growth and the Econintersect Employment Index) is also provided. The fudge factor is fluid as the BLS has significant backward revision to their jobs numbers.
Analysis of Economic Indicators:
Econintersect analyzes all major economic indicators. The table below contains hyperlinks to posts. The right column “Predictive” means this particular indicator has a leading component (usually other then the index itself) – in other words has a good correlation to future economic conditions.