April 2013 Philly Fed Business Outlook Remains Barely Positive

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The Philly Fed Business Outlook Survey remains in positive (growth) territory for the second month – albeit barely. This survey has been negative for 8 of the last 12 months. Key element new orders is slightly in contraction territory.

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

The market was expecting the index value of 2.5 to 3.0 (actual was 1.3). Positive numbers indicate market expansion, negative numbers indicate contraction.

Manufacturers responding to the Business Outlook Survey reported near steady business activity in April. The indicator for overall activity remained slightly positive this month, but other broad indicators were mixed. Indicators for new orders and employment were weaker this month. The survey’s broad indicators of future activity suggest that firms expect continued growth, but optimism waned compared with last month.

Indicators Suggest Steady Activity

The survey’s broadest measure of manufacturing conditions, the diffusion index of current activity, was 1.3, just slightly lower than the reading of 2.0 in March (see Chart). The number of firms reporting increased activity this month (22 percent) edged out those reporting decreased activity (21 percent). The demand for manufactured goods remained weak, with the current new orders index declining from 0.5 to -1.0. The shipments index showed continued improvement, however: The index remained positive and edged six points higher, to 9.1, its highest reading in four months. Nearly 28 percent of the firms reported an increase in shipments; 19 percent reported a decrease. Firms reported a notable decrease in inventories this month: The current inventories index fell from zero to -22.2.

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.

Labor market conditions showed continued signs of weakness, with indexes suggesting lower employment overall. The em-ployment index decreased from 2.7 in March to -6.8 this month, its first negative reading in three months. The percentage of firms reporting employment decreases (17 percent) exceeded the percentage reporting increases (10 percent). The workweek index remained negative for the fourth consecutive month.

Indexes Indicate Reduced Price Pressures

The survey’s price indexes suggest diminished price pressures this month. With regard to purchased inputs, 14 percent of firms reported paying higher prices for inputs, while 11 percent reported lower input prices. The prices paid index edged 5 points lower and is now at its lowest reading since July 2009. The prices received index fell 7 points, to -7.5. The percentage of firms reporting lower prices for their own manufactured goods (12 percent) exceeded the percentage reporting higher prices (5 percent) for the fourth consecutive month.

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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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