I look at the high frequency weekly indicators because while they can be very noisy, they provide a good nowcast of the economy and will telegraph the maintenance or change in the economy well before monthly or quarterly data is available. They also are an excellent way to "mark your beliefs to market." In general, I go in order of long leading indicators, then short leading indicators, then coincident indicators.
A Note on Methodology
Data is presented in a "just the facts, ma'am" format with a minimum of commentary so that bias is minimized.
Where relevant, I include 12-month highs and lows in the data in parentheses to the right. All data taken from St. Louis FRED unless otherwise linked.
A few items (e.g., Financial Conditions indexes, regional Fed indexes, stock prices, the yield curve) have their own metrics based on long-term studies of their behavior.
Where data is seasonally adjusted, generally it's scored positively if it's within the top one-third of that range, negative in the bottom one-third , and neutral in between. Where it is not seasonally adjusted, and there are seasonal issues. Waiting for the YoY change to change sign will lag the turning point. Thus I make use of a convention: Data is scored neutral if it's less than half as positive/negative as at its 12-month extreme.
With long leading indicators, which by definition turn at least 12 months before a turning point in the economy as a whole, there's an additional rule: Data is automatically negative if, during an expansion, it has not made a new peak in the past year, with the sole exception that it's scored neutral if it is moving in the right direction and is close to making a new high.
Recap of monthly reports
September data included an increase in the leading economic indicators. Industrial production was unchanged. Housing permits increased, but starts and existing home sales declined. Nominal retail sales increased slightly, but in real terms were unchanged.
The August JOLTS report showed another record in job openings, and actual hiring and voluntary quits increased. On the other hand, so did layoffs and discharges.
Long leading indicators
Interest rates and credit spreads
- BAA corporate bond index 5.09% up +.07% w/w (1-yr range: 4.15 - 5.03)
- 10-year treasury bonds 3.20% up +.04% w/w (2.05 - 3.24)
- Credit spread 1.89% up +.03% w/w (1.56 - 2.30)
Yield curve, 10-year minus 2-year:
- 0.29%, down -.02% w/w (0.18 - 1.30)
30-Year conventional mortgage rate (from Mortgage News Daily)
- 4.94%, down -0.08% w/w (3.84 - 5.02)
BAA Corporate bonds are back above 5%, so are back once again negative. The spread between corporate bonds and Treasuries is back above 1.85%, and so also turned neutral. The yield curve, still back above 0.25%, is positive. Mortgage rates and Treasury bonds remain negative.
Mortgage applications (from the Mortgage Bankers Association)
- Purchase apps down -6% to 225 w/w (225 - 262) (tied for 1 year low) (SA)
- Purchase apps YoY up +2% (NSA)
- Purchase apps four-week average down -1 to 238 (SA)
- Four-week YoY avg. up +2.75% (NSA)
- Refi apps down -9% w/w (SA)
Real Estate Loans (from the FRB)
- Unchanged w/w 4393
- Up +3.3% YoY ( 2.7 - 6.5) (re-benchmarked, adding roughly +0.5% to prior comparisons)
Refi has been dead for some time. Purchase applications were strong almost all last year, began to falter YoY in late December, but rebounded during spring, ultimately making new expansion highs. Since then they declined all the way to negative before returning through neutral to positive in the last month. As I anticipated, the YoY comparisons got more challenging this week, and the rating returned to neutral (below +3% YoY)
With the re-benchmarking of the last year, the growth rate of real estate loans changed from neutral to positive. If it falls below +3.25%, it will become neutral.
- +0.4% w/w
- -2.6% m/m
- +0.8% YoY Real M1 (-0.7 - 6.9)
- -0.3% w/w
- +0.2% m/m
- +1.2% YoY Real M2 (0.9 - 4.1)
Since 2010, both real M1 and real M2 were resolutely positive. Both decelerated substantially in 2017. Real M2 growth has fallen below 2.5% and is thus a negative. Real M1 briefly turned negative a little over one month ago, but has since rebounded, and it remains positive, albeit weakly, this week.
Credit conditions (from the Chicago Fed)
- Financial Conditions Index unchanged at -0.88
- Adjusted Index (removing background economic conditions) unchanged at -0.76
- Leverage subindex unchanged at -0.39
The Chicago Fed's Adjusted Index's real breakeven point is roughly -0.25. In the leverage index, a negative number is good, a positive poor. The historical breakeven point has been -0.5 for the unadjusted Index. All three metrics presently show looseness and so are positives for the economy. Several months ago, the leverage subindex turned up to near neutral, but has faded toward positive again since.
Short leading indicators
Trade weighted US$
- Up +0.43 to 126.41 w/w, +5.9% YoY (last week) (broad) (116.42 -128.62)
- Up +0.42 to 95.70 w/w, +2.14% YoY (yesterday) (major currencies)
The US dollar briefly spiked higher after the US presidential election. Both measures had been positives since last summer, but recently the broad measure turned neutral, followed more recently by the measure against major currencies, which has risen above +5% YoY and is thus negative.
Bloomberg Commodity Index
- Down -.29 to 85.95 (82.00 - 91.94)
- Up +0.65% YoY
Bloomberg Industrial metals ETF (from Bloomberg)
- 119.07 down -1.37 w/w, down -9.77% YoY (112.03 - 149.10)
Commodity prices surged higher after the 2016 presidential election. Industrial metals had been strongly positive and recently made a new high, but have declined so much recently that they have turned negative. The overall index also briefly turned negative, but has risen to neutral.
Stock prices S&P 500 (from CNBC)
- Up less than +0.1% to 2767.78
After being neutral for several months, stock prices made a new three-month high in mid-June and rose to a number of new all-time highs until last week, when the sell-off made a three-month low. The rating for stocks therefore changed to neutral.
Regional Fed New Orders Indexes
(*indicates report this week)
- *Empire State up +6.0 to +22.5
- *Philly down -2.1 to +19.3
- Richmond up +9 to +34
- Kansas City up +6 to +15
- Dallas down -9.2 to +14.7
- Month-over-month rolling average: up +1 to +21
The regional average has been more volatile than the ISM manufacturing index, but has accurately forecast its month-over-month direction (but not this month!). It has generally been very positive for most of this year. It has cooled from white-hot to red-hot to simply positive in the last several months.
Initial jobless claims
- 210,000 down -3,000
- 4-week average 211,750 up +2,250
Initial claims have repeatedly made more 40+ year lows, and so are very positive.
Temporary staffing index (from the American Staffing Association)
- Up +1 to 102 w/w
- Up +4.2% YoY
This index was generally neutral from May through December 2016, and then positive with a few exceptions all during 2017. It was negative for over a month at the beginning of this year, but returned to a positive since then and in the last several months, very positive.
Tax Withholding (from the Department of the Treasury)
- $192.5 B for the last 20 reporting days vs. $189.9 B one year ago, up +$2.6 B or -1.4%
- 20-day rolling average adjusted for tax cut [+$4 B]: up +$6.6 B or +3.5%
With the exception of the month of August and late November, this was positive for almost all of 2017. It has generally been negative since the effects of the recent tax cuts started in February, but it was positive this week.
I have discontinued the intramonth metric for the remainder of this year, since the kludge to guesstimate the impact of the recent tax cuts makes it too noisy to be of real use.
I have been adjusting based on Treasury Department estimates of a decline of roughly $4 billion over a 20-day period. Until we have YoY comparisons, we have to take this measure with a big grain of salt.
Oil prices and usage (from the E.I.A.)
- Oil down -2.27 to $69.27 w/w, up +38.5% YoY
- Gas prices down -$.02 to $2.88 w/w, up $0.39 YoY
- Usage four-week average down -2.8% YoY
The price of gas bottomed over 2 1/2 years ago at $1.69. Generally prices went sideways with a slight increasing trend in 2017. Usage turned negative in the first half of 2017, but has usually been positive since then, although not in the past several weeks. The YoY change went below 40% this week, so reverts from negative to neutral.
Bank lending rates
Both TED and LIBOR rose in 2016 to the point where both were usually negatives, with lots of fluctuation. Of importance is that TED was above 0.50 before both the 2001 and 2008 recessions. The TED spread was generally increasingly positive in 2017, while LIBOR was increasingly negative. This year the TED spread has whipsawed between being positive or negative, most recently positive.
Both the Goldman Sachs and Johnson Redbook Indexes generally improved from weak to moderate or strong positives during 2017 and have remained positive this year. Recently they have been exceptionally positive.
Railroads (from the AAR)
- Carloads up +0.4% YoY
- Intermodal units up +3.0% YoY
- Total loads up +1.7% YoY
Rail was generally positive since November 2016 and remained so during all of 2017 with the exception of a period during autumn when it was mixed. After some weakness in January and February this year, rail has been positive ever since - until the last two weeks, which weakened enough to cause this indicator to score neutral. This is appears mainly due to Trump's tariffs the curtailment of agricultural shipments which has shown up in the data, especially in contrast to Canadian rail shipments.
Harpex made multi-year lows in early 2017, and after oscillating improved to new multi-year highs earlier this year, but has now fallen enough to rate negative. BDI traced a similar trajectory, and made three-year highs near the end of 2017, and at midyear hit multi-year highs, but has declined in the last two months sufficiently to be listed as a negative now.
I'm wary of reading too much into price indexes like this, since they are heavily influenced by supply (as in, a huge overbuilding of ships in the last decade) as well as demand.
Steel production (from the American Iron and Steel Institute)
- Up +1.6% w/w
- Up +10.3% YoY
Steel production improved from negative to "less bad" to positive in 2016 and with the exception of early summer, remained generally positive in 2017. It turned negative in January and early February, but with the exception of three weeks recently has been positive since then.
Summary And Conclusion:
Among the long leading indexes, the Chicago Fed Adjusted Financial Conditions Index, the Leverage subindex, the yield curve, real M1, and real estate loans are all positive. Purchase mortgage applications turned back from positive to neutral. Treasuries, refinance applications, mortgage rates, and real M2 all remain negative, rejoined this week by corporate bonds.
Among the short leading indicators, the regional Fed new orders indexes, the Chicago National Conditions Index, jobless claims, and staffing are all positive. Gas prices, the broad commodities index, the spread between corporate and Treasury bonds, and one measure of the US dollar are neutral, joined for the second week by stock prices, and rebounding from negative, oil prices. The broad trade weighted US dollarand one commodities index are negative.
Among the coincident indicators, positives include consumer spending, steel, the TED spread, and the Baltic Dry Index. Tax withholding also was positive this week. Rail weakened to a neutral for the second week in a row. LIBOR and Harpex remain negative.
In summary, the long leading forecast, which has been fluctuating recently, did so again this week, changing back from positive to neutral. This mainly has to do with interest rates, which have also turned the very important monthly housing reports so far into negatives. The short-term forecast, helped by oil prices, is just slightly above neutral enough to score positive. The nowcast is still quite positive, although the impact of tariffs has shown up in weakening rail loads.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.