Economic Indicators Roundup (October 22, 2012)

Economic indicators are everywhere, so this is kind of like a dashboard that I like to follow.  For each indicator, I will try to give you a brief description, the latest reading and what I understand to be its implications.  For simplicity, I will assign each a rating of positive, neutral or negative.  For the economic indicators, I will denote in each one’s section how I decide which rating to give it.  At the end, I assign an overall rating, but this is just to guide me in my takeaway of where things stand.  It’s not scientifically rigorous or anything.

  • Positive – indicative of a healthy, growing economy.
  • Neutral – indicative of a slow or no growth economy but not a contracting (recession) economy.
  • Negative – indicative of a shrinking economy or recession.

(NOTE: For a “Quick ‘n Easy” read, just review the labeled white boxes, then skip to my “Easy Take” summary at the end.  You can review any charts/graphs afterward.  I want to make sure no one is intimidated by the length of my posts, even though I’m trying to making them easy …)

Quick Summary

Indicator (Click for details – only works if full article is open) Current Rating (change)
ADS Business Conditions Index Neutral
Bloomberg Financial Conditions Index Positive
Daily Consumer Leading Indicators Negative
Citigroup Economic Surprise Index Positive
USA Today / IHS Global Insight Economic Outlook Index Neutral   (IGNORE BECAUSE TOO OUTDATED)
Employment Trends Index Neutral
Chicago Fed National Activity Index Neutral
Easynomics Real Estate Price Stability Index Positive
Easy Trends Dashboard +1.95 = Nearly all in a good direction with an occasional off-trend reading or unconfirmed status

NOTE: You may be reading an outdated analysis.  Please visit my latest economic indicators roundup.

Economic Indicator: ADS Business Conditions Index   |   NEUTRAL
Easy Intro to ADS Business Conditions Index   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: October 13, 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

A combination of several key indicators of business conditions suggests, with high confidence, that at the end of June 2012 (most recent date for which there is data for all components of the index), conditions were slightly below average (-0.112).  As of about a week and a half ago, it suggested, with low confidence, that current conditions were slightly below average (-0.166), historically speaking.  The index suggests that economic activity hovered at or slightly below average for most of the second quarter before plunging near the middle of the third quarter but starting to rise again.

Economic Indicators - ADS Business Conditions Index Oct 13 2012


Easy Description: Combines several indicators together to describe current business conditions.  A value above zero means that conditions are better than average, but below zero means worse than average.

Latest Readings:

October 13, 2012: Negative (-) 0.166 (includes weekly unemployment figures and maybe one other indicator)

One week prior: Negative (-) 0.181
One month prior: Negative (-) 0.466
One quarter prior: Negative (-) 0.035

The most recent date for which there is data for all components of the index is end of June 2012, when conditions were slightly below average (-0.112).

Implications: After a plunge from early July to mid-August, the index has apparently been rising again, not testing the recession threshold hopefully. That’s based on data from only some of the components though. Stay tuned to see if this actually moves back up or not.

Additional Info: This index provides confident readings about the past when all of the indicators have been collected (everything to the left of the left-most vertical line).  The readings in between the two vertical lines are somewhat less confident because they include some, but not all, of the indicators.  And the latest reading always falls to the right of the right-most vertical line and includes only a couple of indicators.

Easynomics Rating Methodology: For this index, I will use the very latest reading and rate anything between zero and minus (-) 1.00 as “neutral” – anything above or below that will be rated “positive” or “negative” respectively.

Economic Indicator: Bloomberg Financial Conditions Index   |   POSITIVE
Easy Intro to Bloomberg Financial Conditions Index   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: October 19, 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

After a brief but deep plunge into “negative” territory, an index of financial stress surged back up all the way to “positive” territory.  It is signaling that financial stress is probably so low that it’s helping the economy right now.

Economic Indicators - Bloomberg US Financial Conditions Index Oct 19 2012


Easy Description: Monitors the level of stress in the U.S. financial markets.  Zero is normal, above zero is good and below zero is bad.

Latest Reading:  Positive (+) 0.70   (versus a reading of +0.61 the week before)

Implications: Last week, the index took back what it lost the previous week and stayed well inside “positive” territory.  Bottom line: Right now, this index is signaling that financial stress is probably so low that it’s helping the economy.

Easynomics Rating Methodology: For this index, I will rate anything between 0.50 and minus (-) 0.50 as “neutral” – anything above or below that will be rated “positive” or “negative” respectively.


Economic Indicator: Daily Consumer Leading Indicators (Consumer Metrics Institute)  |   NEGATIVE
Easy Intro to Daily Consumer Leading Indicators   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: October 20, 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

Consumer spending makes up about 70% of our economy, so an indication of what this spending looks like down the road is key in predicting growth rates.  The level of interest from consumers in making discretionary (non-essential) purchases in the near term, as captured by the Consumer Metrics Institute on October 20, was about 15% below a fairly normal level seen in the year 2005.

Economic Indicators - Consumer Metrics Institute Daily Absolute Demand Index Oct 20 2012


Easy Description: Very unique indicator that captures the level of consumer  interest in purchasing discretionary (non-essential) items.  It measures activities that occur well in advance of the purchase, so that makes it a true leading indicator.  The indicator that I choose to focus on is called the “Absolute Demand Index.”  It tracks where demand is compared to levels in 2005, a fairly normal level.  So, if the Absolute Demand Index level is 90, it means the level of consumer interest in purchasing discretionary items is 90% of what it was in 2005.  The index is expressed in a daily form (see chart to right) and a monthly form (see chart below.)

Economic Indicators - Consumer Metrics Institute Monthly Absolute Demand Index September 2012


Latest Reading: Absolute Demand Index daily reading is approximately 85 for October 20, which means preparations for consumer discretionary purchases are about 15% lower than the fairly normal levels seen back in 2005.

Implications: We haven’t seen a significant improvement in areas that would suggest a sustainable consumer recovery, namely a surge in income.  At this point, I anticipate that things will remain quite dreary for consumers in the coming months.

The consumer needs to have money to spend on discretionary items.  That money generally comes from jobs, and job growth is in a positive trend though not as much as we’d like.  Watch for those statistics on disposable income levels to really get a feel for whether consumers have money to spend.  The trend for disposable income had been clearly higher since November 2011, with eight consecutive monthly increases, but August finally saw our first drop.  This hasn’t resulted in a significant amount of consumer spending because consumers are still busy unwinding their unusually large debt levels.  Once that gets taken care of, their spending will be more in line with their incomes.

Easynomics Rating Methodology: For this index, if the daily Absolute Demand Index is 98 or higher, I will rate that “positive” – between 90 and 98 will be “neutral” – below 90 will be “negative.”


Economic Indicator: Citigroup Economic Surprise Index US   |   POSITIVE
Easy Intro to Citigroup Economic Surprise Index   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: October 19, 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

An index that measures whether reports on economic data are generally coming in above, at or below expectations suggests that we are getting reports that are significantly better than expectations.  This does not necessarily mean the reports are good or bad – just well above expectations.  After an interim low on July 19, the index moved up into “positive” territory, where it stands today.

Economic Indicators - Citigroup Economic Surprise Index United States - Oct 19 2012

Source: Thompson Reuters

Easy Description: Daily measure of whether, on balance, U.S. economic reports have been better than (positive values), worse than (negative values) or same as (zero) what economists have expected.  For the importance of this, see my post about expectations versus actual results.  Also, check out my article on the relationship between the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index turning positive and the effects on the stock market.

Latest Reading (Approximate): Positive (+) 53 on Oct 19, 2012 (versus +49 last week) – NOTE: I no longer have free access to actual index values, so I am forced to approximate from the chart image.

Implications: There was a clear move upward since a recent low of negative (-) 65.3 on July 19.  After a brief turn down, a few weeks ago the index surged up into “positive” territory.  Thus, reports are significantly better than expectations.

Keep in mind what is basically happening, as it is usually a cycle.  Expectations rise as a result of improving data, and then it becomes more likely that data will disappoint.  It doesn’t actually mean the data get worse, only that they disappoint versus expectations.  The reverse then happens in order to complete the cycle.  We hope that the downturns don’t go as deep as the upturns go high.

Remember that economic reports aren’t necessarily leading indicators, so where we are headed could be somewhere better (or worse).

Easynomics Rating Methodology: I will give this indicator a rating as follows: 100 to 34 is “positive”; between 34 and -34 is “neutral”; -100 to -34 is “negative.”



Economic Indicator: USA Today / IHS Global Insight Economic Outlook Index   |   NEUTRAL   (IGNORE BECAUSE TOO OUTDATED)
Easy Intro to USA Today / IHS Global Insight Economic Outlook Index   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: July 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

A combination of indicators that predict the growth rate of the economy for the next several months suggests that the U.S. economy will grow at a slower-than-average pace through November 2012.  But at least it’s slow growth instead of shrinking.

Economic Indicators - USA Today IHS Global Insight Economic Outlook Index July 2012


Easy Description: Forecast of the 6-month annualized Real GDP growth rate for the next several months.  Based on an index of 11 leading indicators, each of which generally predicts future changes in economic growth.

Latest Reading: Forecasting a slight decline down to 1.6% for July 2012, then a slow rise each month to 2.0% in December 2012.

Implications: These numbers continue to suggest that growth should be slow compared to historical averages, which removes some of the cushion that would protect us against a shock to the system (like what’s happening in Europe.)  These growth rates will make it tough for the economy to produce too many jobs above and beyond the needs of the growing workforce population.

Note that some of this forecast depends upon interest rate spreads (the difference in interest rates on short-term bonds versus long-term bonds, for example).  Those kinds of spreads have been artificially affected by the Federal Reserve’s interventions that are intended to keep interest rates low.  Their usefulness as tools for forecasting economic growth are lower as a result.  What I’m saying is that this forecast may be slightly too optimistic.

Easynomics Rating Methodology: For this index, if the average growth rate of the forecast months is 3 percent or higher, I will rate that “positive” – between 0 and 3 percent is “neutral” – below zero will be “negative.”



Economic Indicator: Employment Trends Index   |   NEUTRAL
Easy Intro to Employment Trends Index   |   Link  to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: September 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

A combination of indicators related to the jobs market through September 2012 suggested that the coming months will probably show continued growth in jobs at about a level that is consistent with keeping unemployment steady, not really enough to improve things.

Employment Trends Index September 2012 - The Conference Board


Easy Description: Combines several indicators together to provide an outlook for employment growth.

Latest Reading: 107.86 for September 2012 (up 5.4% from one year ago) – August 2012 reading was revised down to 108.23

Implications: The index has generally been flat since February.  According to an expert on the index, “In September, the Employment Trends Index declined for the third time in four months, suggesting that employment growth will weaken further in the fourth quarter.  The U.S. economy entered a soft patch in the spring, and the result has been lackluster job growth, which is likely to continue through the first half of 2013.”

This is consistent with my analysis of the September Employment Report and how the trend of sluggish growth continues.  Those comments suggest continued growth in jobs, but it sounds like the growth rate of the overall economy won’t be able to make a sizable dent in the unemployment situation.

Easynomics Rating Methodology: For this index, I will base my rating largely upon what the index expert says.  If the indication is for job growth of any kind, I will rate it either “positive” or “neutral” depending upon the level of growth.  If jobs are expected to decline, I will issue a “negative” rating.


Economic Indicator: Chicago Fed National Activity Index 3-Month Moving Average   |   NEUTRAL
Easy Intro: None yet   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: August 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

An index combining 85 indicators into one number suggests that, over a three-month period, the economy was growing below a historically average rate in August 2012.  Although this isn’t good news, it is still probably growth rather than shrinkage and essentially rules out a recession as of that date.

Economic Indicators - Chicago Fed CFNAI-MA3 thru August 2012


Easy Description: The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago combines 85 different indicators into one number to give a sense of whether the overall U.S. economy is growing faster than its historical trend (numbers above zero) or slower (numbers below zero).  It’s not as simple when you’re trying to determine whether the economy is actually growing (expansion) or shrinking (recession).  If you average the last three months’ index values, you get the CFNAI-MA3 (“moving average 3 months”).  According to the Chicago Fed:

When the CFNAI-MA3 value moves below -0.70 following a period of economic expansion, there is an increasing likelihood that a recession has begun. Conversely, when the CFNAI-MA3 value moves above -0.70 following a period of economic contraction, there is an increasing likelihood that a recession has ended.

Latest Reading: The more reliable moving average of the last three months (CFNAI-MA3) for August 2012 was negative (-) 0.47, which was much lower than the previous month’s revised reading of negative (-) 0.26.  The single month CFNAI reading for August 2012 was negative (-) 0.87, which fell off a cliff from the revised negative (-) 0.12 reading for the previous month.

Implications: In August specifically, economic activity was extremely worse than historical averages (-0.87 for the single month reading), and the more reliable way of looking at things shows an economy that was growing but below an average rate (-0.47).  None of that sounds good, but it does signal some growth rather than a shrinking economy.  Thus, we can essentially rule out that a recession had begun by August 2012.  That’s all I want you to focus on because month-to-month variations can often mean little.  But if you want a deeper dive into the data, read on.

The single-month reading for August was dreadful (worst since June 2009) but may be revised higher next month.  Only one of the four major categories really changed much at all in August.  The “Production and Income” related indicators plummeted from close to average to way below average.

Only two of the four broad components were significantly above or below average this time around.  The “Personal Consumption and Housing” category was well below average (-0.23), and the “Production and Income” category was also well below average (-0.58).  In summary, of the four broad categories of indicators in August, there were 0 well above average, 2 close to average and 2 well below average.  Looking at the range of indicators, 29 of the 85 total indicators were better in August than they were the previous month.  The “diffusion index” is a measure of how widespread the gains (or losses if it’s negative) were across the 85 indicators, and it is a three-month moving average.  The 3-month diffusion index for August was -0.23, meaning that a building consensus of indicators worsened over the last three months.

Keep in mind that this index reports significantly later than other ones, likely because it takes a while for all 85 of its required indicators to be updated!  Still, I like its comprehensive look at the economy and its fairly reliable prediction of upcoming recessions.

Easynomics Rating Methodology: I will give this indicator a rating based on the CFNAI-MA3 as follows: +0.20 or higher is “positive”; between +0.20 and -0.70 is “neutral”; -0.70 or worse is “negative.”

Economic Indicator: Easynomics Real Estate Price Stability Index (EREPSI)   |   POSITIVE
Easy Intro to Easynomics Real Estate Price Stability Index   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: August 2012 (contains estimated portion)

Quick ‘n Easy

An index designed to look at the stability of home prices indicates that, thru August 2012, we are essentially at equilibrium – home prices are about 0.78 percent below a theoretical stable point.  If trends in months of supply and price/rent ratio continue, the index would rise higher, indicating that a “reverse bubble” may form by about May 2013.

Easynomics Real Estate Price Stability Index July 2012 - Aug1Sep0Easy Description: This index is an average of three indicators that help ascertain whether home prices are above or below historically normal levels: 1) new homes inventory months of supply, 2) existing homes inventory months of supply and 3) price-to-rent ratio.  For more info on what these mean, click on the “Easy Intro” above.

Latest Reading: Thru August 2012, the EREPSI is at positive (+) 0.78 percent, which means prices are 0.78 percent lower than the stable point.  The August reading is based on actual values for the “months of supply” components but uses an estimate for the Case-Shiller HPI.  For recent trends, you can read my latest analysis on new residential homes inventory months of supply or existing homes sales and inventory months of supply.

Implications: After a strong move up starting in July 2011, the index has essentially plateaued since December 2011.  However, if trends in supply and inflation continue, it looks like the index will slowly rise over the next several months forming a virtual “reverse bubble” where prices of homes should be pressured to rise. The EREPSI value would cross into “neutral” territory by about May 2013, where home prices would be quite a bit lower than where they “should” be.

My somewhat arbitrary decision is to call this index “positive” if it’s within 7.5 percent of a the stable point, which of course it is right now.  Prospects for some stability in home prices look good.  Based on the parameters that this index tracks, there is hope that real estate prices may not move down significantly, if at all, from here.  This index confirms what many analysts now believe – that we already reached a bottom in housing prices.

Easynomics Rating Methodology: In the housing market, if things get too far “out of whack” with respect to price-to-rent ratio and inventory, it doesn’t matter which direction … it’s a negative.  We don’t want a bubble or an overly pessimistic crash.  Therefore, I will give this indicator a rating as follows, based on the most recent month with actual “months of supply” data to use in calculations: Within 7.5 percent of zero in either direction is “positive”; within 15 percent of zero in either direction (but not closer than 7.5 percent) is “neutral”; farther than 15 percent from zero in either direction is “negative.”

Easy Trends Dashboard

Updated: October 19, 2012
Consensus Score: +1.95 (vs +1.65 last week)
Interpretation: Nearly all in a good direction with an occasional off-trend reading or unconfirmed status

Indicator Trend Score* (change from last week)
ECRI Index +3
Employment Report +3
Existing Homes Sales and Inventory Months of Supply +3   (up by 2)
Factory Orders -3
GDP +3
Industrial Production +1   (down by 1)
New Residential Homes Sales and Inventory Months of Supply +2.5
Personal Income Levels +1
Residential Investment +3 
Unemployment Claims +3   (up by 2)

*Trend Score Definitions:

  • Confirmed trend with no recent readings that are off trend: +3 (good direction) or -3 (bad direction)
    • For each consecutive recent reading that was off trend in the opposite direction, I move the score by one point in the direction of zero
  • Unconfirmed trend: +1 (good direction) or -1 (bad direction)
  • No trend that has at least 50 percent confidence: 0

Easy Take

NOTE: The USA Today index hasn’t been updated since July data for some reason. I don’t want to use any index that only represents data older than August at this point, so I will not consider its rating in my calculation below.

This week, there were no ratings changes.

My trends indicator has moved up again due to the improvements in weekly jobless claims and existing home sales, so indicators are nearly all moving in the right direction.

We currently have 3 positive, 3 neutral and 1 negative economic indicators.  Using a scale of positive=3, neutral=2 and negative=1, this yields an average rating of 2.29 out of 3.00 (versus 2.00 last week), which falls in the middle third of the possible range but very close to the upper third (would need to surpass 2.33).  In other words, my set of economic indicators combine into a “neutral” rating.  The consensus view of the above indicators is that economic conditions are consistent with positive growth but below the historical average rate.  Trends are almost all headed in a good direction.

Disclaimer: My dashboard isn’t really a group of similar indicators, so we can’t say that it represents any one particular thing.  For example, it’s not geared strictly toward predicting the future of the economy like a leading indicators dashboard.  It’s not like a coincident indicator dashboard that focuses on how things are right this second.  It’s just a bunch of things I like to follow, interpreted in a way to be consistent with either economic growth or shrinkage.  I would just guess that if the indicators I most like to follow start trending one way or the other, there is a good chance the economy is going that way, too.