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The Weekly Leading Index (WLI) of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) rose slightly in the latest public data (released Wednesday in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday). It is now at 125.7, up from 125.4 in the previous week. See the WLI chart in the Appendix below. The WLI annualized growth indicator (WLIg) declined to 3.8, down from last week's 4.3. WLIg has been in expansion territory for thirteen weeks, although it is now at a seven-week low, with the high at 6.0 on October 12th.

ECRI received significant attention for its recession call September of 2011. Here is a chronology of video interviews with Lakshman Achuthan, ECRI's chief operations officer, since its first public recession forecast on September 30th of last year. For the past ten weeks the last item in this list below has been the headline feature at the ECRI website, including the snapshot of a stern-faced Achuthan:

  • September 30, 2011: Recession Is "Inescapable" (link)
  • September 30, 2011: Tipping into a New Recession (link)
  • February 24, 2012: GDP Data Signals U.S. Recession (link)
  • May 9, 2012: Renewed U.S. Recession Call (link)
  • July 10, 2012: "We're in Recession Already" (link)
  • September 13, 2012: "U.S. Economy Is in a Recession" (link)

The explanation of how ECRI continued to justify its recession call in light of weak but not recessionary economic data is this September 13th post on the company's website: The 2012 Recession: Are We There Yet? In particular this commentary explains in more detail the July claim that key economic indicators were "rolling over."

In the current cycle retail sales have already peaked back in March 2012 and, according to the household survey, employment has declined for the last two months, and for four of the last six months. Mind you, the household data is revised a lot less than the payroll jobs data and also tends to lead it a bit at cycle turns. (While the jobless rate, calculated from the same data, is yet to turn up in this cycle, that is mostly due to people dropping out of the labor force.)

Since July, when we highlighted the weakness in personal income growth, there have been revisions showing even weaker income growth going back a few months, followed by some apparent recovery recently. As with some of the other coincident data, this series will come under significant revision in the months (and years) ahead. Nevertheless, the weakness in income growth is showing through in retail sales data, which, as mentioned, has actually declined since March.

What Are the Big Four Economic Indicators Telling Us?

Since last week's ECRI update, there have been no new updates for our Big Four Economic Indicators. Next Friday, however, the latest ECRI public data will be released shortly after we get the last of the Big Four for October ... Real Personal Income Less Transfer Payments. Here is one of my Big Four charts with ECRI's 2011 recession call annotated. Note especially the table below.


(Click to enlarge)

As the average of the Big Four charted above illustrates, growth in recent months has essentially flat-lined, and we still face the near-term impact of Sandy on the economy and the impact of how congress deals with the various components of the Fiscal Cliff. At this point in time, I think it is possible that the NBER could eventually date a new recession from some point in the third or fourth quarter of 2012. But I remain of the view that ECRI's 2011 recession call was painfully premature. Note that in the second bulleted interview link above, Achuthan asserted on WSJ Live that the NBER would eventually put the recession start in Q3 or Q4 ... of 2011.

As for the economic impact of government policy on the expiring tax cuts, earlier this week Martin Feldstein, a former president of the NBER, was interviewed by Bloomberg. His view is succinctly captured in the title to the Bloomberg post: U.S. Fixing Cliff May Not Avoid Recession.

Note: For another perspective on the Big Four economic indicators, see the following article by Dwaine van Vuuren: On the Cliff's Edge.

For a less deterministic view on the U.S. economy from another independent economic "think tank," see this commentary on the Conference Board's latest Leading Economic Index update. In the latest CB update, as of November 21, their LEI has increased slightly for two consecutive months.


Appendix: A Closer Look at the ECRI Index

The first chart below shows the history of the Weekly Leading Index and highlights its current level.


(Click to enlarge)

For a better understanding of the relationship of the WLI level to recessions, the next chart shows the data series in terms of the percent of the previous peak. In other words, a new weekly high registers at 100%, with subsequent declines plotted accordingly.


(Click to enlarge)

As the chart above illustrates, only once has a recession occurred without the index level achieving a new high -- the two recessions, commonly referred to as a "double-dip," in the early 1980s. Our current level is 11.9% off the most recent high, which was set over five years ago in June 2007. We're now tied with the previously longest stretch between highs, which was from February 1973 to April 1978. But the index level rose steadily from the trough at the end of the 1973-1975 recession to reach its new high in 1978. The pattern in ECRI's indicator is quite different, and this has no doubt been a key factor in their business cycle analysis.

The WLIg Metric

The best known of ECRI's indexes is their growth calculation on the WLI. For a close look at this index in recent months, here's a snapshot of the data since 2000.


(Click to enlarge)

Now let's step back and examine the complete series available to the public, which dates from 1967. ECRI's WLIg metric has had a respectable record for forecasting recessions and rebounds therefrom. The next chart shows the correlation between the WLI, GDP and recessions.


(Click to enlarge)

The History of ECRI's Latest Recession Call

ECRI's weekly leading index has become a major focus and source of controversy ever since September 30th of last year, when ECRI publicly announced that the U.S. is tipping into a recession, a call the Institute had announced to its private clients on September 21st. Here is an excerpt from the announcement:

Early last week, ECRI notified clients that the U.S. economy is indeed tipping into a new recession. And there's nothing that policy makers can do to head it off.

ECRI's recession call isn't based on just one or two leading indexes, but on dozens of specialized leading indexes, including the U.S. Long Leading Index, which was the first to turn down — before the Arab Spring and Japanese earthquake — to be followed by downturns in the Weekly Leading Index and other shorter-leading indexes. In fact, the most reliable forward-looking indicators are now collectively behaving as they did on the cusp of full-blown recessions, not "soft landings." (Read the report here.)

Year-over-Year Growth in the WLI

Triggered by another ECRI commentary, Why Our Recession Call Stands, I now include a snapshot of the year-over-year growth of the WLI rather than ECRI's previously favored method of calculating the WLIg series from the underlying WLI (see the endnote below). Specifically the chart immediately below is the year-over-year change in the 4-week moving average of the WLI. The red dots highlight the YoY value for the month when recessions began.


(Click to enlarge)

As the chart above makes clear, the WLI YoY, now at 3.2%, down from 3.7% the previous week. Nevertheless, this is higher than at the onset of all but one of the seven recessions in the chart timeframe. The second half of the early 1980s double dip, which was to some extent an engineered recession to break the back of inflation, is a conspicuous outlier in this series, starting with a WLI YoY at 4.1%.

Additional Sources for Recession Forecasts

Dwaine van Vuuren, CEO of RecessionAlert.com, and his collaborators, including Georg Vrba and Franz Lischka, have developed a powerful recession forecasting methodology that shows promise of making forecasts with fewer false positives, which I take to include excessively long lead times, such as ECRI's September 2011 recession call.

Here is today's update of Georg Vrba's analysis, which is explained in more detail in this article.


(Click to enlarge)

Additional Analysis on Recession Forecasting

Note: How to Calculate the Growth series from the Weekly Leading Index

ECRI's weekly Excel spreadsheet includes the WLI and the Growth series, but the latter is a series of values without the underlying calculations. After a collaborative effort by Franz Lischka, Georg Vrba, Dwaine van Vuuren and Kishor Bhatia to model the calculation, Georg discovered the actual formula in a 1999 article published by Anirvan Banerji, the Chief Research Officer at ECRI: The three Ps: simple tools for monitoring economic cycles - pronounced, pervasive and persistent economic indicators.

Here is the formula:

"MA1" = 4 week moving average of the WLI

"MA2" = moving average of MA1 over the preceding 52 weeks

"n"= 52/26.5

"m"= 100

WLIg = [m*(MA1/MA2)^n] – m

Source: ECRI Weekly Leading Index: Index Rises, Growth Diminishes