This is Part 3 of my 3-part review of The Conference Board’s economic indicators. Monday I reviewed the lagging indicators, confirming that 2014 has been the best year for economic growth since the financial crisis, although sluggish wage growth and rising consumer debt (aided by artificially low interest rates) presented some concerns. Yesterday I reviewed the coincident indicators and found that the U.S. economy is growing and adding jobs, although the mix of jobs is still too tilted toward part-time positions, and consumer spending is benefiting from an unsustainable rise in transfer payments. This article will cover The Conference Board’s leading economic indicators. Overall, the analysis indicates that momentum in the U.S. economy should extend into early 2015, but conditions will likely slow by mid-year as the Fed gradually removes the Quantitative Easing training wheels.
The leading indicators are depicted in the table below, along with my -1, 0 or +1 rankings and the weights assigned by The Conference Board. The equally- and Conference Board-weighted diffusion index scores of +40% and +44%, respectively (based on a possible range of -100% to +100%), show that the U.S. economy will most likely sustain its recent momentum into the first half of 2015. A detailed review of each leading indicator follows below.
The most heavily-weighted component is the Average Length of the Manufacturing Workweek (weight = 27.8%), shown below with the Average Length of the Construction Workweek. The manufacturing workweek has exceeded 42 hours for the first time in many years. The gradual rise in the series is mirrored in the length of the construction workweek. On the surface, these would appear to be purely positive developments . . .
. . . except, as shown below, the U.S. economy has shed an astounding 5 million manufacturing jobs and almost 2 million construction jobs in the last 10-15 years. Ouch! Given that context, I can only rank this indicator zero.
The second leading indicator is the ISM’s New Manufacturing Orders Index, weight = 16.5%. (Does it strike anyone else as strange that The Conference Board weights their leading indicators with a 44% focus on manufacturing, which is anything but a leading industry in the U.S. any more?) The index has recently reversed its post-recession downtrend, bouncing strongly off its recent low of 50 in 2012 (suggesting economic contraction — notice how previous recessions have been preceded by similar downtrends). But the 2-year uptrend causes me to rate this indicator +1.
The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index (weight = 15.5%) has also been in a slow, steady uptrend, which merits a score of +1. Notice how the indicator collapsed in late summer of 2011 before Bernanke went to Jackson Hole and vowed to leave the QE spigot on full blast for “as long as it takes.”
Interest Rate Spread Between the 10-year T-Note and the Fed Funds Rate (weight = 10.7%). This indicator is really a proxy for the slope of the yield curve. A steeply sloped yield curve indicates economic expansion, while a flat or inverted yield curve indicates slowdown or contraction. The curve has recently flattened as longer-term rates have slumped, despite the Fed’s threats to raise rates (some day, perhaps even in our lifetimes). The 2% spread is typical for the middle of an economic expansion, but with the Fed’s central planners maniacally pinning the short end of the yield curve at zero, I have to score this indicator zero.
Manufacturers’ New Orders for Consumer Goods (weight = 8.1%). Nominal and real Durable Goods Orders (deflated by the Personal Consumption Expenditure Index, or PCE) are shown below. The indicator rebounds sharply following the last recession, with Durable Goods Orders displaying slow, steady growth back to their levels preceding each of the last 2 recessions. Although the indicator is positive on its own, the underlying support that consumer spending is receiving from zero interest rates and transfer payments leads me to assign it a score of zero.
The Conference Board’s proprietary Leading Credit Index is replaced by The Chicago Fed’s National Financial Conditions Index (weight = 7.9%). Lower levels indicate “looser” borrowing conditions. Access to credit remains easy, especially for this stage of an economic expansion, so I’ll rate this indicator +1.
Level of the S&P 500 (weight = 3.8%). The S&P 500 has, with the voodoo elixir of Quantitative Easing, broken out of its secular bear phase. As stock prices are supposed to lead economic conditions by 3-9 months, I will rate this indicator a cautious +1.
Manufacturers’ New Orders for Capital Goods (weight = 3.6%). Unlike the pattern observed in Durable Goods, the inflation-adjusted Capital Goods Orders index has yet to match its level from prior expansions. The trend is up, however, so I’ll rate this indicator zero.
Initial Unemployment Claims (weight = 3.3%). Unemployment claims continue trending lower. This indicator therefore rates a score of +1.
Building Permits for New Private Housing Units (weight = 2.7%). This indicator continues advancing, but only to levels associated with the depths of the 1982 and 1991 recessions. I will therefore rate the indicator zero.
The individual scores for each leading indicator and their weighted and unweighted averages were shown at the beginning of this article, resulting in equally- and Conference Board-weighted scores of +40% and +44%, respectively (possible range = -100% to +100%). Although still positive, these scores are far below the +70% I assigned to the leading indicators in January 2014. Overall I expect economic momentum to continue through early 2015, but conditions are likely to cool off a bit as the economy gradually loses the support of its Quantitative Easing training wheels.
This post contains Part 2 of my 3-part Economic Outlook for 2015 (read part 1 here). In this article we’ll examine The Conference Board’s 4 Coincident Economic Indicators, which measure the strength of current economic activity. My rankings for each indicator are shown below (-1, 0 or +1), along with the equally-weighted and Conference Board-weighted scores of +50% and +67%, respectively (based on a scale ranging from -100% to +100%). The coincident indicators show that the U.S. economy is currently strong and gaining momentum heading into the turn of the year.
The first coincident indicator is Retail and Food Service Sales, heavily weighted at 53.2% (this is a substitution for The Conference Board’s Manufacturing and Trade Sales indicator). Total sales have risen steadily since the last recession, earning this indicator a score of +1. S&P’s Capital IQ reported that in the period ending with Q3-2014, sales grew at an annual rate of 2.9% and EPS increased a red-hot 9.2%.
The second coincident indicator is Total Nonfarm Payrolls (weight = 25.9%). The U.S. economy is producing new jobs, with total employment finally exceeding its level from the mid-2000s. The series is clearly in a long-term uptrend.
There are several reasons to be a bit cautious about the Nonfarm Payrolls data, however. First reason: the 7 million workers who are working part-time but would prefer to be working full-time:
The second reason is that while payrolls are growing briskly, the pace of new hiring is more sluggish:
An unusually low level of voluntary terminations accounts for the slower pace of new hiring. I will therefore rate the Total Nonfarm Payrolls indicator zero — the uptrend is positive, but the mix of full- and part-time jobs being created and the sluggish rate of new hiring tempers my enthusiasm.
The third coincident indicator is Personal Income Less Transfer Payments (weight = 13.6%). Personal income in the U.S. is at an all-time high, which is definitely a positive. Examining the next graph below, however . . .
. . . I compare Personal Income to Transfer Payments and Personal Consumption Expenditures. Notice how the upward trend in income and spending is strongly supported by an above-trend surge in Transfer Payments. (Large and growing transfer payments are one of the primary reasons the U.S. owes the rest of the world $18 trillion.) Although I have strong concerns that future reductions in Transfer Payments will be fiscally necessary, and the accompanying effect on spending will be unpleasant, I’ll rate this indicator a cautious +1 for now.
The fourth coincident indicator is The Index of Industrial Production (weight = 7.3%). Industrial Production was the most heavily-weighted coincident indicator until a few years ago. The nominal series is trending upward, but the real series has grown more slowly than the rate of inflation. Although the trend in the nominal series is upward, the lackluster behavior of the real series leads to a ranking of zero. It is not consistent with robust, sustainable growth.
Merging the above -1, 0, or +1 ratings into a diffusion index provides a score of +50% if all indicators are equally-weighted, and +67% if we use The Conference Board weights. The indicators show that growth and economic activity are strong and accelerating. Except for two concerns:
- Retail Sales and Consumer Spending are enjoying a boost from the multi-year rise in Transfer Payments, which is clearly unsustainable over the long term, and
- the mix of new jobs being created remains tilted toward part-time positions;
The U.S. economy is on solid footing, and poised to extend its recent 3.0% real growth into early 2015.
Part 3 of my 2015 Outlook will cover The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Indicators.
Economic Outlook 2015, Part 1: Lagging Indicators Show Growth in 2014 Aided by Low Interest Rates and Increasing Consumer Debt
It’s the time of the year to reflect on the direction of the economy. For the past several years I have examined each individual component of The Conference Board’s Lagging, Coincident and Leading Economic Indicators and created my own diffusion index by ranking each indicator -1, 0 or +1. I have found that this method produces accurate forecasts of future economic conditions. In 2013 I predicted a continuation of sluggish growth ahead of virtually everyone else (link here), and in 2014 I reversed that call and predicted faster growth (link here), which also turned out to be correct. Thus far in 2014 GDP growth has been higher than any year since the 2008 financial crisis, which can be seen in the following graph.
I’ll break this year’s forecast into 3 parts. Part 1 will cover The Conference Board’s 7 Lagging Indicators, which help us look back and understand how economic activity evolved over the past 6-12 months (I will cover the Coincident and Leading Indicators later this week). I find that the Lagging Indicators are most useful for corroborating previous forecasts and identifying the main factors that contributed to growth in previous periods.
The following table shows my rankings for each lagging indicator. While no indicator is flashing a negative signal (corresponding to a score of -1), I scored most of them zero rather than +1, as the evidence strongly suggests that GDP growth in 2014 was dependent upon artificially low interest rates and further increases in consumer debt loads, which were already high.
Sluggish wage growth and an elevated services CPI (which tends to rise in the early stages of an economic slowdown) cast further doubt on whether 2015 can match or exceed the growth we’ve seen in 2014. The diffusion index scores of 29% and 32% (equally weighted and using The Conference Board’s weights, respectively) reflect my view that although economic growth was positive, economic momentum remains surprisingly tepid. The economy may have difficulty sustaining its recent performance all the way through 2015. A detailed analysis of each lagging indicator follows below.
The most heavily-weighted lagging indicator is the Average Prime Rate (weight = 0.2815), also shown with Total Commercial and Industrial Loans. The rate has never been lower, and commercial and industrial loans continue increasing, so this indicator merits a score of +1.
Next is the Ratio of Consumer Credit to Personal Income (weight = 0.2101), also shown with Personal Income Less Transfer Payments, which provides an additional perspective on sources of consumer spending power. It strikes me that the credit-to-income ratio is a “goldilocks” number, in that we don’t want it to be too high or too low. The ratio recently exceeded its 2003 high, which tells us that consumers feel it is necessary to manage ever-larger debt loads, despite the steady gains in Personal Income from non-Transfer Payment sources, as shown in the graph. I will therefore rate this indicator zero, as growing household debt loads are a potential source of financial instability — especially if interest rates were to rise.
The next Lagging Indicator is the Consumer Price Index for Services (weight = 0.1955). The Conference Board describes the interpretation of this indicator: “It is probable that . . . service sector inflation tends to increase in the initial months of a recession and to decrease in the initial months of an expansion.” Recent increases in this indicator therefore bear watching — any further uptrend would be concerning, as increases in the index are associated with recessions (although not always with a lag). I will therefore rate this indicator zero.
Ratio of Inventory to Sales (weight = 0.1211). With the prevalence of just-in-time inventory management, this ratio has trended downwards for decades. Recently there are signs of a gradual buildup in inventories, however, so this indicator earns a score of zero.
Commercial and Industrial Loans (weight = 0.0970) are shown below. Consumer credit is rising almost asymptotically, while industrial loans are increasing at a saner rate. This pattern of rapidly increasing consumer credit suggests that economic growth and spending are dependent on increasing debt levels, so I will also have to rate this indicator zero.
Nominal and Real Unit Labor Costs (weight = 0.0587) are shown in the graph below. Sluggish job creation has helped businesses keep labor costs capped — good for business, bad for working class consumers. After deflating unit labor costs by the chained PCE, we see that the trend has been negative for 12 years — in other words, “labor costs” (wages and salaries to workers) have not kept up with the rate of inflation, which tells us why consumers have been increasing their debt loads. The “good for business, bad for working class consumers” story causes me to rate this indicator zero.
Median Duration of Unemployment (weight = 0.0361) is shown below, along with the Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate. Unemployment duration continues improving, down to a median 13 weeks (which is still elevated compared with previous business cycles). The decline in the labor force participation rate has slowed, but is not trending upward. I can coax a +1 out of this indicator, but I might be rounding up from +0.5 — the labor market simply is still a far cry from what it used to be in the U.S.
Taken together, the lagging indicators generally confirm that 2014 was a positive year for economic activity and GDP growth. I have concerns regarding the sustainability of real GDP growth in the 3.5%-4.0% range, however, due mainly to the following factors:
- artificially low interest rates,
- increasing consumer debt,
- wage growth below the rate of inflation, and
- a rising services CPI.
My next installment in this year’s economic outlook will cover The Conference Board’s Coincident Economic Indicators.