Weekly High Frequency Indicators: Short-Term Forecast Joins Long-Term Forecast As Neutral, Tariffs Killing Rail

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by: New Deal Democrat

Summary

High frequency indicators can give us a nearly up-to-the-moment view of the economy.

The metrics are divided into long leading, short leading, and coincident indicators.

For the first time, the short-term forecast has joined the long-term forecast as neutral.

The nowcast, in particular rail loads, is being hit by the effect of tariffs.

Purpose

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 1/3 of that range, negative in the bottom 1/3, and neutral in between. Where it's 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 1/2 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's moving in the right direction and is close to making a new high.

Recap of monthly reports

The final October readings of present consumer sentiment and future expectations by the University of Michigan both declined. September durable goods orders increased, but new home sales declined sharply.

In the rearview mirror, advance Q3 GDP came in at +3.5%, aided by a big inventory buildup. The two long leading indicators in the GDP report diverged: Proprietors' income increased, while fixed residential investment decreased.

Long leading indicators

Interest rates and credit spreads

Rates

  • BAA corporate bond index 5.12% up +.03% w/w (1-year range: 4.15 - 5.12) NEW HIGH
  • 10-year treasury bonds 3.08% down -.12% w/w (2.05 - 3.24)
  • Credit spread 2.04% up +.15% w/w (1.56 - 2.30)

Yield curve, 10-year minus 2-year:

  • 0.27%, down -.02% w/w (0.18 - 1.30)

30-year conventional mortgage rate (from Mortgage News Daily)

  • 4.94%, unchanged 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. If it rises above 2.10%, it will be a negative. The yield curve, still back above 0.25%, is positive. Mortgage rates and treasury bonds remain negative.

Housing

Mortgage applications (from the Mortgage Bankers Association)

  • Purchase apps up +2% to 230 w/w (225 - 262) (tied for one year low) (SA)
  • Purchase apps YoY up +0.2% (NSA)
  • Purchase apps 4-week average down -4 to 234 (SA)
  • 4 week YoY avg. up +1% (NSA)
  • Refi apps down -10% w/w (SA)

*(SA)=seasonally adjusted, (NSA) = not seasonally adjusted

Real Estate Loans (from the FRB)

  • Up +0.1% w/w
  • Up +3.2% YoY ( 2.7 - 6.5) (re-benchmarked, adding roughly +0.5% to prior comparisons)

Refi has been dead for some time, and is near 20-year lows. Purchase applications were strong almost all last year, began to falter YoY in late December, but rebounded during spring, ultimately making new expansion highs. During summer they declined all the way to negative before returning through neutral to positive in the last month, before declining to neutral again for the last two weeks.

With the re-benchmarking of the last year, the growth rate of real estate loans changed from neutral to positive. If has now fallen below +3.25%, and its rating has thus changed from positive back to neutral.

Money supply

M1

  • +1.1% w/w
  • -0.1% m/m
  • +2.0% YoY Real M1 (-0.7 - 6.9)

M2

  • +0.1% w/w
  • +0.1% m/m
  • +1.4% 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 about two months ago, but has since rebounded, and it remains positive this week.

Credit conditions (from the Chicago Fed)

  • Financial Conditions Index up +.01 to -0.87
  • Adjusted Index (removing background economic conditions) up +.02 to -0.74
  • Leverage subindex up +.02 to -0.37

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 +0.49 to 126.90 w/w, +5.6% YoY (last week) (broad) (116.42 -128.62)
  • Up +0.64 to 96.34 w/w, +1.51% YoY (yesterday) (major currencies)

The US dollar briefly spiked higher after the US presidential election. Both measures had been positive 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.

Commodity prices

Bloomberg Commodity Index

  • Down -.95 to 85.00 (82.00 - 91.94)
  • Down -1.07% YoY

Bloomberg Industrial metals ETF (from Bloomberg)

  • 117.54 down -1.53 w/w, down -11.95% 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, then returned to neutral, but is now back to negative again.

Stock prices S&P 500 (from CNBC)

  • Down -3.9% to 2658.69

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 two weeks ago, 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)

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.

Employment metrics

Initial jobless claims

  • 215,000 up 5,000
  • Four-week average 211,750 unchanged

Initial claims have repeatedly made more 40 year-plus lows, and so are very positive.

Temporary staffing index (from the American Staffing Association)

  • Unchanged at 102 w/w
  • Up +4.1% 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)

  • $182.0 B for the last 20 reporting days vs. $187.0 B one year ago, down -$5.0 B or -2.7%
  • 20-day rolling average adjusted for tax cut [+$4 B]: down -$1.0 B or -0.5%

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 intra-month 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 -1.61 to $67.66 w/w, up +33.4% YoY
  • Gas prices down -$.04 to $2.84 w/w, up $0.36 YoY
  • Usage four-week average down -1.3% 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 month. The YoY change remained below 40% this week, so is 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.

Coincident indicators

Consumer spending

  • Johnson Redbook up +5.5% YoY
  • Goldman Sachs Retail Economist up +1.9% w/w, up +2.7% YoY

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 generally been exceptionally positive.

Transport

Railroads (from the AAR)

  • Carloads down -0.7% YoY
  • Intermodal units up +1.6% YoY
  • Total loads up +0.5% YoY

Shipping transport

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 had been positive ever since - until the last three weeks, which weakened enough to cause this indicator to score neutral to mixed. This appears mainly due to Trump's tariffs curtailing agricultural 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 multiyear highs, but has since declined sufficiently to be listed as a neutral 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)

  • Down -0.3% w/w
  • Up +10.0% 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, and real M1 are all positive. Purchase mortgage applications were joined this week by real estate loans as neutral. Treasuries, corporate bonds, refinance applications, mortgage rates, and real M2 all remain negative.

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 spread between corporate and Treasury bonds, and one measure of the US dollar, oil prices, and stock prices are all neutral. The broad trade weighted US dollar, and both commodities indexes are negative.

Among the coincident indicators, positives include consumer spending, steel, and the TED spread. The BDI weakened to neutral this week, and rail is mixed with one aspect neutral and one negative. LIBOR and Harpex remain negative. Tax withholding also weakened to a negative this week.

We now have weakness showing up in all timeframes. The long leading forecast has been fluctuating recently, and for the second week is neutral. Housing is now firmly negative, and any further weakening of real M1 or the yield curve will take this forecast back to negative. This is mainly due to interest rates. The weakness has now spread to the short-term forecast, which as of this week I'm downgrading from positive to neutral. The strong dollar and weak commodities also are part and parcel of increased interest rates working through the system. Finally, I'm also downgrading the nowcast to a weak positive, due mainly to the impact of tariffs, which has shown up in a swift decline in rail loads. An economic slowdown looks baked in the cake, with the issue of whether it leads to outright recession in a year or so still outstanding.

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.