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Chicago Fed: Economic Growth Near Average in February

Courtesy of Doug Short.

According to the Chicago Fed National Activity Index, February’s economic activity decreased from January, but the three-month moving average for this volatile index is the highest since May 2010. Here are excerpts from the report:

Led by weaker production-related indicators, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index decreased to ?0.09 in February from +0.33 in January. Two of the four broad categories of indicators that make up the index deteriorated from January, but of these two, only the production and income category made a negative contribution to the index in February.

The index’s three-month moving average, CFNAI-MA3, increased from +0.22 in January to +0.30 in February — its highest level since May 2010. February’s CFNAI-MA3 suggests that growth in national economic activity was above its historical trend. The economic growth reflected in this level of the CFNAI-MA3 suggests limited inflationary pressure from economic activity over the coming year.

The contribution from production-related indicators to the index declined to ?0.01 in February from +0.30 in January. Total industrial production was unchanged in February after rising 0.4 percent in January; and manufacturing production rose by 0.3 percent in February, fol- lowing a much larger increase of 1.1 percent in the previous month. [Download PDF News Release]

The Chicago Fed’s National Activity Index (CFNAI) is a monthly indicator designed to gauge overall economic activity and related inflationary pressure. It is a composite of 85 monthly indicators as explained in this background PDF file on the Chicago Fed’s website. The index is constructed so that the historical index average is zero. Postive monthly values indicate above-average growth, negative values indicate below-average growth.

The first chart below is based on the complete CFNAI historical series dating from March 1967. The red dots show the indicator itself, which is quite noisy, and the 3-month moving average (CFNAI-MA3), which is more useful as an indicator of coincident economic activity. I’ve also highlighted official recessions.

 

 

For a clearer look at the recent behavior of the index, here is a closeup view since 2007.

 

 

The next chart highlights the -0.7 level. The Chicago Fed explains:

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.

With the exception of the 1973-75 recession, the -0.7 level has coincided fairly closely with recession boundaries. The 1973-75 event was perhaps an outlier because of the rapid rise of inflation following the 1973 Oil Embargo. Otherwise a cross below the -0.7 level has synchronized within a month or two of a recession start. A cross above the level has lagged recession ends by 2-4 months.

 

 

The next chart includes an overlay of GDP, which reinforces the accuracy of the CFNAI as an indicator of coincident economic activity.

 

 

Here’s a chart of the CFNAI without the MA3 overlay — for the purpose of highlighting the high inter-month volatility. Consider: the index has ranged from a high 2.57 to a low of -4.78 with a average monthly change of 0.59. That’s 8% of the entire index range!

 

 

Further underscoring the volatility is the roller-coaster list of CFNAI monthly headlines from 2010 forward.

2010

2011

2012

Increased Sharply (Jan)
Slowed (Feb)
Improved (Mar)
Continued to Improve (Apr)
Continued to Expand (May)
Declined (Jun)
Rebounded (Jul)
Weakened (Aug)
Slowed Further (Sep)
Picked Up (Oct)
Slowed (Nov)
Improved (Dec)
Slower (Jan)
Near Average (Feb)
Improved (Mar)
Weakened (Apr)
Remained Below Average (May)
Again Below Average (Jun)
Improved (Jul)
Weakened (Aug)
Improved (Sep)
Up Slightly (Oct)
Decreased (Nov)
Improved (Dec)
Again Above Average (Jan)
Growth Near Average (Feb)

As monthly chart depicts and the headline verbs reinforce, it’s unwise to read very much in the data for any specific month. The 3-month moving average is the number to watch.

The Long-Term Economic Trend

In the final chart I’ve let Excel draw a linear regression through the CFNAI data series. The slope confirms the casual impression of the previous charts that National Activity, as a function of the 85 indicators in the index, has been declining since its inception in the late 1960s, a trend that roughly coincides with the transition from a good-producing to a post-industrial service economy in the information age.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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