Durable Goods May 2012 Backlog Continues to Decline

Written by Steven Hansen

Last month’s durable goods data was strange – this month it was a little more consistent.  Overall, there is a slight difference between the adjusted and unadjusted data analysis – but there is no disagreement that backlog (unfilled orders) is declining which is not a positive sign.

On the other hand, this data is almost in direct conflict with much better Industrial Production (durable goods subindex).

Census Headlines:

  • new orders up 1.1% month-over-month
  • backlog (unfilled orders) down 0.0% month-over-month – now down two consecutive months after rising for 27 months
  • the market expected new orders up 0.5% to 1.0% versus the up 1.1% actual

Econintersect Analysis:

  • new orders down 0.5% month-over-month, and up 5.9% year-over-year
  • inflation adjusted new orders up 1.3% month-over-month, and up 5.5% year-over-year
  • production (inflation adjusted using Industrial Production – durable goods) down 1.4% month-over-month, up 9.0% year-over-year [note that this is a series with moderate backward revision – and it uses production as a pulse point (not new orders or shipments)]
  • backlog (unfilled orders) down 0.5% month-over-month – the second consecutive month of decline

Durable Goods sector is the portion of the economy which provides products which have a utility over long periods of time before needing repurchase – like cars, refrigerators and planes.

The strength this month was due to transports and defense spending.  There was a general softness in computers and metals. Econintersect concentrates on new orders as it is the entry point for future production – and somewhat intuitive economically.

The trend lines are uncertain – but I will be kind and say they are flat as the growth appears around the average for the last year:

The above graphic shows both the year-over-year change for unadjusted new orders and inflation adjusted new orders using the PPI for inflation adjustment.

This month’s graphic shows the second month of fall in unfilled orders. One or two months is not a trend, but several months of decline would be a serious economic warning sign.

It is interesting that this data does not agree with the Federal Reserves Industrial Production (Durable Goods) subindex which shows 9.0% year-over-year growth, and -1.4% growth month-over-month.

Caveat on the Use of Durable Goods

The data when first released is subject to several months of revision. The revisions currently have been minor – making the initial headline data reasonably accurate in real time.

The data in this series is not inflation adjusted – and Econintersect adjusts using the appropriate BLS Producer Price Index for durable goods or uses Industrial Production (IP) – durable goods sub-index which is a non-monetary index.

As in most US Census reports, Econintersect does not agree with the seasonal adjustment methodology used and provides an alternate analysis. The issue is that the exceptionally large recession and subsequent economic roller coaster has caused data distortions that become exaggerated when the seasonal adjustment methodology uses several years of data. Further, Econintersect believes there is a New Normal seasonality and using data prior to the end of the recession for seasonal analysis could provide the wrong conclusion.

Econintersect determines the month-over-month change by subtracting the current month’s year-over-year change from the previous month’s year-over-year change. This is the best of the bad options available to determine month-over-month trends – as the preferred methodology would be to use multi-year data (but the New Normal effects and the Great Recession distort historical data).

Durable goods expenditure is a major element of GDP. Therefore may pundits look for enlightenment within the durable goods data for economic direction. To illustrate how durable goods new orders and backlog fits into a recession watch, the Fred graph below (produced based on August 2011 data) shows clearly that data trends down preceding a recession. Unfortunately, there are several false indications of recessions.

More importantly, durable goods as discussed in this post is not the durable goods of the consumer – as it includes business and government consumption while excluding imports. For a better understanding of consumer demand for durable goods, the BEA’s Personal Consumption Expenditure’s Durable Goods data series should be used (graph updated through April 2012 data):

Durable goods is not a good economic forecasting tool as it contains too many false warnings of economic contraction.

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