CFNAI Super Index Says Economy Improved Somewhat in June 2012

Written by Steven Hansen

The economy did not fall of a cliff in June.

The June 2012 Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) release shows the 3 month moving average improved somewhat but has remained for the last 4 months in negative territory – indicating national economic activity was moderately below its historical trend. The index remains in a medium term down trend despite the increase this month.

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 June – but that the expansion was significantly weaker than the previous month.

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.  This index is degrading, but the June data ended 4 straight months of contraction.

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

This is a super coincident indicator – which by definition is a rear view economic picture.

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.  The Chicago Fed’s explanation of the movement this month:

The contribution from production-related indicators to the CFNAI increased to +0.13 in June from –0.27 in May. Total industrial production rose 0.4 percent in June after edging down 0.2 percent in May, and manufacturing production increased 0.7 percent in June after decreasing 0.7 percent in the previous month. Likewise, manufacturing capacity utilization moved up to 77.7 percent from 77.3 percent over the same period.

The contribution from the consumption and housing category to the CFNAI also increased, edging up to –0.23 in June from –0.26 in May. Housing starts rose to 760,000 annualized units in June from 711,000 in May, but housing permits decreased to 755,000 annualized units from 784,000 over the same period.

Employment-related indicators made a neutral contribution to the CFNAI in June, down from +0.05 in May. Total payroll employment increased by 80,000 in June following a gain of 77,000 in May; however, civilian employment increased by 128,000 in June after recording a gain of 422,000 in the previous month. The contribution from the sales, orders, and inventories category to the CFNAI in June was also lower, decreasing to –0.06 from a neutral contribution in May.

The CFNAI was constructed using data available as of July 19, 2012. At that time, June data for 51 of the 85 indicators had been published. For all missing data, estimates were used in constructing the index. The May monthly index was revised to –0.48 from an initial estimate of –0.45. Revisions to the monthly index can be attributed to two main factors: revisions in previously published data and differences between the estimates of previously unavailable data and subsequently published data. The revision to the May monthly index was due primarily to the former.

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.

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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.

Related Articles:

Econintersect Economic Forecasts

Past CFNAI posts