The Big Four Economic Indicators: Update

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Note from dshort: This commentary has been revised to include today's release of Retail Sales data. This is the second of the Big Four to be updated through July.


Official recession calls are the responsibility of the NBER Business Cycle Dating Committee, which is understandably vague about the specific indicators on which they base their decisions. This committee statement is about as close as they get to identifying their method.

There is, however, a general understanding that there are four big indicators that the committee weighs heavily in their cycle identification process. They are:

  • Industrial Production
  • Real Income
        (excluding transfer payments)
  • Employment
  • Real Retail Sales

four indicators 14 aug 2012

The weight of these four in the decision process is sufficient rationale for the St. Louis FRED repository to feature a chart four-pack of these indicators along with the statement that "the charts plot four main economic indicators tracked by the NBER dating committee." In his July 10th Bloomberg TV interview, ECRI's Lakshman Achuthan cites these four at about the 2:05 minute point in his remarks. He says, and I quote "When you look at those four measures, they are rolling over."

Are they really rolling over? First, here are the four as identified in the Federal Reserve Economic Data repository. See the data specifics in the linked PDF file with details on the calculation of two of the indicators.

The FRED charts are excellent. They show us the behavior of the big four indicators currently (the green line) as compared to their best, worst and average behavior across all the recessions in history for the four indicators (which have start dates). Their snapshots extend from 12 months before the June 2009 recession trough to the present.

The latest update to the Big Four was today's release of the July Retail Sales data (the green line in the chart below), which significantly exceeded forecasts (more here).

big for last recession

See also this updated chart from Dwaine van Vuuren of RecessionAlert.com. It incorporates Dwaine's preferred method of calculating the growth rate for Real Retail Sales.

retail sales 1959 to 2011

And here is his 6-Factor Weighted Composite, which includes a custom weighting of all four indicators.

five factor weighted composite 1959 to 2012

Dwaine's analysis now puts the implied probability of recession at 0.017%. For more on his analytical approach, see his The NBER co-incident Recession Model – "confirmation of last resort".

Background Analysis: The Big Four Indicators and Recessions

The charts above don't show us the individual behavior of the Big Four leading up to the 2007 recession. To achieve that goal, I've plotted the same data using a "percent off high" technique. In other words, I show successive new highs as zero and the cumulative percent declines of months that aren't new highs. The advantage of this approach is that it helps us visualize declines more clearly and to compare the depth of declines for each indicator and across time (e.g., the short 2001 recession versus the Great Recession). Here is my own four-pack showing the indicators with this technique.

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