According to the Chicago Fed's National Activity Index, January economic activity declined from December, now at -0.32, down from December's upwardly revised 0.25 (previously 0.2). The CFNAI headline euphemistically used the term "moderated" to summarize the change. Particularly astonishing in yesterday's report was the dramatic upward revision to the November data from 0.27 to 0.96. This index has been negative (meaning below-trend growth) for eight of the past eleven months. However, the substantial revisions to the previous two months have lifted the 3-month moving average into positive territory for the past three months. Here are the opening paragraphs from the report:
Led by declines in production-related indicators, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) decreased to –0.32 in January from +0.25 in December. Three of the four broad categories of indicators that make up the index decreased from December, and only two of the four categories made positive contributions to the index in January.
The index's three-month moving average, CFNAI-MA3, increased to +0.30 in January from +0.23 in December. Given the substantial upward revisions for November and December, January's CFNAI-MA3 marked the third consecutive reading above zero. Additionally, January's reading suggests that growth in national economic activity was somewhat 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 CFNAI Diffusion Index also moved up in January, increasing to +0.10 from +0.07 in December. Thirty-four of the 85 individual indicators made positive contributions to the CFNAI in January, while 51 made negative contributions. Thirty-three indicators improved from December to January, while 52 indicators deteriorated. Of the indicators that improved, 12 made negative contributions. [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 a zero value for the index indicates that the national economy is expanding at its historical trend rate of growth. Negative values indicate below-average growth, and positive values indicate above-average growth.
The first chart below shows the recent behavior of the index since 2007. The red dots show the indicator itself, which is quite noisy, together with the 3-month moving average (CFNAI-MA3), which is more useful as an indicator of the actual trend for coincident economic activity. As we can readily see, the CFNAI-MA3 trend since February of this year has been one of slow economic contraction.
For a broad historical context, here is the complete CFNAI historical series dating from March 1967.
The next chart highlights the -0.7 level. The Chicago Fed explains:
The next chart highlights the -0.70 level and the value of the CFNAI-MA3 at the start of the seven recession that during the timeframe of this indicator. The 1973-75 event was an outlier because of the rapid rise of inflation following the 1973 Oil Embargo. As for the other six, we see that all but one started when the CFNAI-MA3 was above the -0.70 level.
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 2.61 to a low of -4.85 with a average monthly change of 0.60. That's 8% of the entire index range! The latest reading is a month-over-month change of -0.25, which is below the average volatility.
Further underscoring the volatility is the roller-coaster list of CFNAI monthly headlines from 2011 forward.
As the monthly chart depicts and the headline verbs reinforce, it's unwise to read very much into the data for any specific month. Also data revisions frequently make the real-time headline subsequently inaccurate. The 3-month moving average is a better 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.
For a more detailed perspective on long-term economic trends, see my latest Understanding the CFNAI Components, which I update and post a few hours after the CFNAI is released.