CFNAI Super Index Shows Economy Hit the Brakes in August 2012

Written by Steven Hansen

The economy weakened considerably in August 2012 with the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) 3 month moving (3MA) average declining significantly. The 3MA  has remained in negative territory for the last 6 months – indicating national economic activity was below its historical trend.

The index’s short term trend is now 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 August – 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 literally all elements were negative with production the overwhelming economic headwind.  The Chicago Fed’s explanation of the movement this month:

The contribution from production-related indicators to the CFNAI declined to –0.58 in August from +0.08 in July. Total industrial production fell 1.2 percent in August after increasing 0.5 percent in July, and manufacturing capacity utilization decreased to 77.0 percent in August from 77.7 percent in the previous month.

Employment-related indicators contributed –0.04 to the CFNAI in August, down very slightly from –0.02 in July. The unemployment rate edged down to 8.1 percent in August from 8.3 percent in July, but initial claims for unemployment insurance increased to 371,000 in August from 366,000 in the previous month. In addition, nonfarm payrolls increased 96,000 in August, compared with 141,000 in July.

The contribution from the consumption and housing category to the CFNAI also decreased slightly in August, moving down to –0.23 from –0.21 in July. Housing starts increased to 750,000 annualized units in August from 733,000 in July, but housing permits edged lower to 803,000 annualized units from 811,000 over the same period.

The sales, orders, and inventories category made a contribution of –0.01 to the CFNAI in August, down from +0.02 in July.

The CFNAI was constructed using data available as of September 20, 2012. At that time, August data for 51 of the 85 indicators had been published.

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