Written by Steven Hansen
The economy improved in September 2012 with the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) 3 month moving (3MA) average improving from the 2012 low water mark last month. The 3MA has remained in negative territory for the last 7 months – indicating national economic activity was below its historical trend, but above the levels associated with recessions.
The index’s short term trend remains less good (negative acceleration) – meaning the economy is softening. Since the end of the Great Recession, the current values are on the lower end of the channel. The Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) provides a summary quantitative value for all the economic data being released. However, this index IS NOT accurate in real time (see caveats below) – and it did miss the start of the 2007 recession.
This index is a rear view mirror of the economy, and whilst the tend is clearly negative – the index is telling that the economy did expand in September – but that the expansion was under the potential of the economy.
A zero value for the index indicates 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)
The index was in an improvement trend from November 2011 through February 2012, down sharply in March and the improving trend again from April through June 2012. The index is not down trending for the last two months..
CFNAI Three Month Moving Average Showing Month-over-Month Change
This is a super coincident indicator – which by definition is a rear looking view of the economy.
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 & 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 year. Over the last 4 month, the other three elements of the CFNAI have taken turns dragging the index down. This month all except personal consumption were positive. The Chicago Fed’s explanation of the movement this month:
Thirty-nine of the 85 individual indicators made positive contributions to the CFNAI in September, while 46 made negative contributions. Sixty-one indicators improved from August to September, while 23 indicators deteriorated and one was unchanged. Of the indicators that improved, 29 made negative contributions.
Production-related indicators contributed +0.03 to the CFNAI in September, up significantly from –0.72 in August. Total industrial production rose 0.4 percent in September after decreasing 1.4 percent in August.
Employment-related indicators contributed +0.12 to the CFNAI in September, up from –0.06 in August. The unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September from 8.1 percent in August; and nonfarm payrolls increased 114,000 in September, compared with 142,000 in August. The contribution from the sales, orders, and inventories category to the CFNAI also increased in September, moving up to +0.04 from –0.14 in August.
The contribution from the consumption and housing category to the CFNAI increased to –0.19 in September from –0.24 in August. Housing starts increased substantially, jumping from 758,000 annualized units in August to 872,000 in September—their highest level since July 2008. Housing permits increased as well, rising from 801,000 annualized units in August to 894,000 in September.
The CFNAI was constructed using data available as of October 18, 2012. At that time, September data for 51 of the 85 indicators had been published. For all missing data, estimates were used in constructing the index.
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.