Chicago Fed: U.S. Growth Stumbed In February But 3-Month Trend Improves

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Includes: RINF, SPY
by: James Picerno

The US economy continued to expand through last month at a moderate pace, albeit at a rate that's slightly below the historical trend, according to this morning's update of the Chicago Fed National Activity Index. The business-cycle benchmark's three-month average (CFNAI-MA3) ticked up to -0.07 in February, close to The Capital Spectator's projection. The main takeaway: recession risk remained relatively low through last month, a message that echoes last week's US macro profile.

The monthly reading of the Chicago Fed's index dropped sharply last month, however, falling to -0.29 - a substantial reversal after January's upwardly revised +0.41. "All four broad categories of indicators that make up the index decreased from January, and three of the four categories made negative contributions to the index in February," the Chicago Fed said in a statement.

The monthly data is noisy, of course, and so the three-month data offer a more-reliable measure of the macro trend. By that standard, the latest profile provides a fresh round of encouragement for arguing that NBER is unlikely to declare February as the start of a new recession. Indeed, CFNAI-MA3's current print of -0.07 marks the highest reading in five months-a level that's well above the -0.70 tipping point that signals economic contraction.

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The historical record for CFNAI suggests that we view the monthly data with a grain of salt. As the chart above shows, there's usually a fair amount of volatility around the three-month trend-volatility that's usually misleading for monitoring the broad trend. Only when CFNAI-MA3 is sinking consistently, approaching -0.70, will this indicator flash a genuine warning sign for the US economic outlook. For the moment, a healthy margin of comfort prevails, courtesy of the considerable gap for the current three-month average over the historical tipping point.