Economic Indicators Roundup (December 31, 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 Positive
Bloomberg Financial Conditions Index Neutral   (downgrade)
Daily Consumer Leading Indicators Negative
Citigroup Economic Surprise Index Positive
Employment Trends Index Neutral
Chicago Fed National Activity Index Neutral
Easynomics Real Estate Price Stability Index Neutral   (downgrade)
Easy Trends Dashboard +1.70 = Generally good direction with a few off-trend or unconfirmed

NOTE: You may be reading an outdated analysis.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

Economic Indicator: ADS Business Conditions Index   |   POSITIVE
Easy Intro to ADS Business Conditions Index   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: December 22, 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

A combination of several key indicators of business conditions suggests, with high confidence, that at the end of September 2012 (most recent date for which there is data for all components of the index), conditions were well below average (-0.566).  As of about a week and a half ago, it suggested, with low confidence, that current conditions were above average (+0.392), historically speaking.  The index suggests that economic activity stayed below average from late February through early fourth quarter, at which point conditions may have surged upward (preliminary data only).

Economic Indicators - ADS Business Conditions Index Dec 22 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:

December 22, 2012: Positive (+) 0.392 (includes weekly unemployment figures and maybe one other indicator)

One week prior: Positive (+) 0.416
One month prior: Positive (+) 0.424
One quarter prior: Negative (-) 0.512

The most recent date for which there is data for all components of the index is end of September 2012, when conditions were well below average (-0.566).

Implications: After negative readings since late February,  preliminary data suggest that conditions have improved considerably, but as more data begin to come in, the assessment may change considerably.  That’s why it’s important not to put too much stock into data to the right of the first vertical line, and even less importance on data to the right of the second line.

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   |   NEUTRAL   (downgrade)
Easy Intro to Bloomberg Financial Conditions Index   |   Link to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: December 28, 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

An index of financial stress has dropped suddenly back into “neutral” territory after being “positive” for several months.  It is signaling that financial stress is probably neither helping nor hurting the economy right now.

Economic Indicators - Bloomberg US Financial Conditions Index Dec 28 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 (+) 0.31   (versus a reading of +0.66 last week)

Implications: Say what you will about whether the “fiscal cliff” is a real problem or not, but financial stress has clearly increased in its shadow.  The ups and downs of the index lately have to do with the looming fiscal challenges facing Congress (i.e., “the fiscal cliff”).  Bottom line: Right now, this index is signaling that financial stress is neither helping nor hurting 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: December 28, 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 December 28, was about 13.5% below a fairly normal level seen in the year 2005.

Economic Indicators - Consumer Metrics Institute Daily Absolute Demand Index Dec 28 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 November 2012


Latest Reading: Absolute Demand Index daily reading is approximately 86.5 for December 28, which means preparations for consumer discretionary purchases are about 13.5% lower than the fairly normal levels seen back in 2005.

Implications: After late November’s interim high around 85 (already a very low level), we saw a significant drop in demand, but over the last couple of weeks that demand has been on a roller coaster ride.  The current level is low enough to be concerning for GDP numbers for the 4th quarter, as these have generally been well correlated to the consumer spending portion of GDP.

We need to see a significant improvement in areas that would suggest a sustainable consumer recovery, namely a surge in income.  We saw an end to an upward trend in income around July, but there may be a new upward trend developing right now.  At this point, I still 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.  November’s figures were a very large step up from the previous month, but it remains to be seen whether this is really part of a trend or a one-time deal.  The trend for disposable income had been clearly higher since November 2011, with eight consecutive monthly increases, but it’s stagnated since about July/August.  That eight-month rising trend didn’t result in a significant amount of consumer spending because consumers were (and 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: December 28, 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 above expectations.  This does not necessarily mean the reports are good or bad – just above expectations.  After an interim low on July 19, the index moved up into “positive” territory and has mostly stayed there since.

Economic Indicators - Citigroup Economic Surprise Index United States - Dec 28 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 (+) 49 on Dec 28, 2012 (versus +56 last week) – NOTE: I no longer have free access to actual index values, so I am forced to approximate from the chart image.

Implications: The index faded for a few weeks and even touched into “neutral” territory but pulled back up into “positive” so now it’s likely that reports are coming in above 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: Employment Trends Index   |   NEUTRAL
Easy Intro to Employment Trends Index   |   Link  to Source   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: November 2012

Quick ‘n Easy

A combination of indicators related to the jobs market through November 2012 suggested that the coming months will probably show continued growth in jobs but at a slower rate than we see now.  Clearly, it won’t be enough to put a dent in the unemployment rate.

Employment Trends Index November 2012 - The Conference Board

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

Latest Reading: 107.82 for November 2012 (up 3.3% from one year ago) – October 2012 reading was revised down to 107.84

Implications: The index has generally been flat since February.  According to an expert on the index, “The Employment Trends Index remains weak and suggests that employment growth over the next several months is likely to slow again. Employment growth typically lags economic growth, and with the economy expected to decelerate in the current quarter and early 2013, a slowdown in employment won’t be far behind.”

This is consistent with my analysis of the November 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: November 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 November 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 November 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 November 2012 was negative (-) 0.20, which was much better than the previous month’s revised reading of negative (-) 0.59.  The single month CFNAI reading for November 2012 was positive (+) 0.10, which was a huge increase from the previous month’s revised reading of negative (-) 0.64.

Implications: In November specifically, economic activity was very close to historical averages (positive (+) 0.10 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 (-0.20).  Though it’s not fantastic news, it does signal some growth rather than a shrinking economy.  Thus, we can essentially rule out that a recession had begun by November 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 November was a very pleasant surprise, the highest single month reading since February.  I like to see how many components were within 0.10 units of zero (average), between 0.10 and 0.20 units (close to average) and greater than 0.20 units away from zero (well above/below average).  In summary, of the four broad categories of indicators in November, the breakdown looks like this:

  • Well Above Average: 1
  • Close to Average (positive): 0
  • Average (positive or negative): 2
  • Close to Average (negative): 1
  • Well Below Average: 0

Only two of the four components moved from one category level to another (using revised data from last month, not the original reading):

  • Production & Income made a huge surge from well below average to well above average
  • Personal Consumption & Housing nudged from well below average to close to average (but still negative)

Looking at the range of indicators, 44 of the 85 total indicators were better in November 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 November was -0.15, meaning that a building consensus of indicators worsened over the last three months.  The last time we had a positive diffusion index was in April.

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)   |   NEUTRAL   (downgrade)
Easy Intro to Easynomics Real Estate Price Stability Index   |   Latest Date This Info Represents: November 2012 (contains estimated portion)

Quick ‘n Easy

An index designed to look at the stability of home prices indicates that, thru November 2012, we are below equilibrium – home prices are about 8.18 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 April 2013.

Easynomics Real Estate Price Stability Index Oct 2012 - Nov3Dec0Easy 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 November 2012, the EREPSI is at positive (+) 8.18 percent, which means prices are 8.18 percent lower than the stable point.  The November reading is based on actual values for the “months of supply” components but uses an estimate for 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 mostly plateaued from December 2011 through July 2012 before recently turning upwards again.  If trends in supply and inflation continue, it looks like the index will slowly rise over the next several months forming a “reverse bubble” where prices of homes would be artificially low and should be pressured to rise.

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: December 27, 2012
Consensus Score: +1.70 (vs +1.60 last week)
Interpretation:  Generally in a positive direction with a few off-trend readings or unconfirmed trends

Indicator Trend Score* (change from last week)
ECRI Index +3
Employment Report +3
Existing Homes Sales and Inventory Months of Supply +3
Factory Orders -2
GDP +3
Industrial Production 0
New Residential Homes Sales and Inventory Months of Supply 0   (down 1)
Personal Income Levels +1
Residential Investment +3
Unemployment Claims +3   (up 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

This week, financial stress got much worse and housing prices look to be actually too low compared to what they should be, which may act to drive prices higher but also means that something is out of balance in the system.

We also saw a slight tick upward in the Easy Trends Dashboard pointing in a positive direction, making us more confident that the movement of economic indicators is in a good direction.

We currently have 2 positive, 4 neutral and 1 negative economic indicators.  Using a scale of positive=3, neutral=2 and negative=1, this yields an average rating of 2.14 out of 3.00 (versus 2.43 last week), which falls in the middle third of the possible range.  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 generally headed in a good direction with a few off-trend readings or unconfirmed trends here and there.

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.