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 are also 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.
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 is scored positively if it is within the top 1/3 of that range, negative in the bottom 1/3, 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 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.
November data started out with a solidly positive employment report, a slight increase in motor vehicle sales, and increased positive ISM manufacturing and non-manufacturing reports.
In October, construction spending, and in particular residential spending, decreased, as did factory orders.
Interest rates and credit spreads
Yield curve, 10-year minus two-year:
30-year conventional mortgage rate (from Mortgage News Daily)
BAA Corporate bonds are above 5%, and so have joined mortgage rates and treasury bonds as negative. The spread between corporate bonds and Treasuries has now risen above 2.10%, and so also is negative. The yield curve remains the only interest rate indicator that is not negative, because the two-year to 10-year spread is still positive, but less than 0.25%.
NOTE: If mortgage rates fall back below 4.5%, they will move from negative to neutral.
Mortgage applications (from the Mortgage Bankers Association)
*(SA)=seasonally adjusted, (NSA) = not seasonally adjusted
Real Estate Loans (from the FRB)
Refi has recently been at or near 20-year lows, although with a decline in mortgage rates, had a nice pop this week. Purchase applications began to falter YoY last December, but rebounded during spring, ultimately making new expansion highs. During summer they declined through neutral to negative, then rose into positive, before turning negative again in the last month.
With the re-benchmarking of the last year, the growth rate of real estate loans changed from neutral to positive. It remained below +3.25% this week, and so stays negative.
Since 2010, both real M1 and real M2 were resolutely positive. Both decelerated substantially in 2017. Real M2 growth fell below 2.5% earlier this year and has thus been rated negative. Real M1 briefly turned negative about two months ago, then rebounded, but this week was again negative for the second week in a row.
Credit conditions (from the Chicago Fed)
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 turned more positive again since.
Trade weighted US Dollar
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
Bloomberg Industrial metals ETF (from Bloomberg)
Commodity prices surged higher after the 2016 presidential election. Both industrial metals, and the broader commodities indexes have both declined all the way to negative in the past year.
Stock prices S&P 500 (from CNBC)
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 a little over two months ago, when the sell-off started and they made several three-month lows. The rating for stocks therefore changed to neutral. It will not score negative unless and until more than three months passes from stocks' last high, and they make a new three-month low.
Regional Fed New Orders Indexes
(*indicates report this week) (no reports 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.
Initial jobless claims
Initial claims made 40 year-plus lows into September, but have risen since then by a little over 10%. On a YoY basis they are still lower. Under the circumstances, they are still within the range of normal noise and so remain positive. If the four-week average rises by 12.5% off its low, that will trigger a change of rating to neutral.
Temporary staffing index (from the American Staffing Association)
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 positive since then and in the last several months, very positive, although in the past few weeks it has backed off. If the YoY comparison falls below +1.5% (considering the comparison was over +4% recently), the rating will change to neutral.
Tax Withholding (from the Department of the Treasury)
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.
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.)
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. In the last two months, however, prices have plummeted. This is a negative for the oil patch, but a positive for consumers, so the rating changes from neutral to positive. Usage turned negative in the first half of 2017, then turned positive, but turned negative again for over the last two months, until this week turning positive again.
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. Earlier this year the TED spread has whipsawed between being positive or negative, but more recently was very positive. It has risen again in the last month, but is still positive.
Both the Retail Economist and Johnson Redbook Indexes generally improved from weak to moderate or strong positives during 2017 and have remained positive this year. A few months ago both were exceptionally positive, but the Retail Economist measure has decelerated since then.
Railroads (from the AAR)
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 about two months ago. Since then, except for one week last month, it has weakened nearly precipitously, probably due to tariffs. For three of the last four weeks, including this week, it has been negative or, as in this week, neutral.
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)
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.
Among the long leading indexes, only the Chicago Fed Adjusted Financial Conditions Index and the Leverage subindex remain positive, real estate loans and the yield curve are neutral (because the two-year to 10-year comparison has not inverted). Treasuries, corporate bonds, refinance applications, mortgage rates, purchase mortgage applications and both real M1 and M2 are all negative,
Among the short leading indicators, the regional Fed new orders indexes, the Chicago National Conditions Index, jobless claims, staffing, and oil and gas prices are all positive (note that I am weighting the benefit to consumers more than the distress to the Oil Patch). One measure of the US dollar and stock prices are neutral. The broad trade weighted US dollar, both commodities indexes, and the spread between corporate and Treasury bonds are negative.
Among the coincident indicators, consumer spending, steel, and the TED spread are positive. The BDI is neutral. Tax withholding and rail are mixed. LIBOR and Harpex remain negative.
The short-term forecast and the nowcast remain somewhat weaker positives, but the long leading forecast remains in negative territory for the fourth week in a row. If this persists much longer, and is confirmed by the less volatile monthly long leading indicators (several of which cannot be monitored weekly), I will go on recession watch beginning 12 months out. This "could" possibly happen as early as next week.
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