March 2013 Philly Fed Business Outlook Finally Positive

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The Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey finally entered growth territory – as it has been negative for 9 of the last 11 months. Key element new orders is now in expansion territory.

This is a very noisy index which readers should be reminded is sentiment based. The Philly Fed historically is the most negative of all the Fed manufacturing surveys.

The market was expecting the index value of -3.0 to 2.0 (actual was +2.0). Positive numbers indicate market expansion, negative numbers indicate contraction.

Manufacturers responding to the March Business Outlook Survey reported slight increases in business activity this month. Indicators for general activity and new orders increased notably, following negative readings over the previous two months. Indicators for shipments and employment remained positive and improved slightly this month. Changes in the survey’s broad indicators of future activity were mixed but continued to reflect general optimism about growth over the next six months.

Indicators Suggest Increased Activity

The survey’s broadest measure of manufacturing conditions, the diffusion index of current activity, increased from a reading of -12.5 in February to 2.0 this month (see Chart).* The demand for manufactured goods also showed improvement this month: The new orders index increased from a reading of -7.8 in February to 0.5, its first positive reading in three months. The shipments index showed continued improvement: The index remained positive and edged higher to 3.5. The percentage of firms reporting increased shipments (25 percent) was still only slightly greater than the percentage reporting declines (22 percent).

Labor market conditions showed continued signs of stability, but little overall growth. The employment index increased from 0.9 in February to 2.7 this month, its second consecutive positive reading. The percentage of firms reporting employment increases (17 percent) narrowly exceeded the percentage reporting decreases (14 percent). Firms also reported a decline of average work hours this month. The workweek index declined 11 points.

Indexes Indicate Little Price Pressure

The survey’s price indexes suggest little price pressures again this month. For the third consecutive month, the prices received index was slightly negative. The percentage of firms reporting lower prices for their own manufactured goods (9 percent) exceeded by a slim margin the percentage reporting higher prices (8 percent). With regard to purchased inputs, 17 percent of firms reported paying higher prices for inputs, compared with 13 percent last month. The prices paid index edged slightly lower and is now at its lowest reading in nine months.

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Econintersect believes the important elements of this survey are new orders and unfilled orders .  New orders squeaked into expansion, whilst unfilled orders are “less bad”.

This index has many false recession warnings. However, holding this and other survey’s Econintersect follows accountable for their predictions, the following graph compares the hard data from Industrial Products manufacturing subindex (dark blue bar) and US Census manufacturing shipments (lighter blue bar) to the Philly Fed Survey (yellow bar).

Comparing Surveys to Hard Data

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In the above graphic, hard data is the long bars, and surveys are the short bars. The arrows on the left side are the key to growth or contraction.

Summary of all Federal Reserve Districts Manufacturing:

Richmond Fed (hyperlink to reports):

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Kansas Fed (hyperlink to reports):

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Dallas Fed (hyperlink to reports):

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Philly Fed (hyperlink to reports):

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New York Fed (hyperlink to reports):

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Federal Reserve Industrial Production – Actual Data (hyperlink to report)

Caveats on the use of Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey:

This is a survey, a quantification of opinion – not facts and data. Surveys lead hard data by weeks to months, and can provide early insight into changing conditions. Econintersect finds they do not necessarily end up being consistent compared to hard economic data that comes later, and can miss economic turning points.

This survey is very noisy – and recently showed recessionary conditions. And it is understood from 3Q2011 GDP that the economy was expanding even though this index was in contraction territory. On the positive side, it hit the start and finish of the 2007 recession exactly.

No survey is accurate in projecting employment – and the Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey is no exception. Although there are some general correlation in trends, month-to-month movements have not correlated with the BLS Service Sector Employment data.

Over time, there is a general correlation with real business data – but month-to-month conflicts are frequent.

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