Note: This commentary has been updated to incorporate the May data for Industrial Production.
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 belief that there are four big indicators that the committee weighs heavily in their cycle identification process. They are:
- Nonfarm Employment
- Industrial Production
- Real Retail Sales
- Real Personal Income (excluding Transfer Receipts)
The Latest Indicator Data
Today's report on Industrial Production for May shows a month-over-month decline of 0.4 percent (0.42 percent to two decimal places), which was worse than the Investing.com consensus of a 0.2 percent decline. The previous month's 0.66 percent decline was revised downward to 0.57 percent. The May data has erased most of the big jump in April. Industrial Production has contracted for 14 of the last 18 months.
Here is the overview from the Federal Reserve:
Industrial production decreased 0.4 percent in May after increasing 0.6 percent in April. Declines in the indexes for manufacturing and utilities in May were slightly offset by a small gain for mining. The output of manufacturing moved down 0.4 percent, led by a large step-down in the production of motor vehicles and parts; factory output aside from motor vehicles and parts edged down 0.1 percent. The index for utilities fell 1.0 percent, as a drop in the output of electric utilities was partly offset by a gain for natural gas utilities. After eight straight monthly declines, the production at mines moved up 0.2 percent. At 103.6 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production in May was 1.4 percent below its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector decreased 0.4 percentage point in May to 74.9 percent, a rate that is 5.1 percentage points below its long-run (1972–2015) average. [view full report]
The chart below shows the year-over-year percent change in Industrial Production since the series inception in 1919, the current level is lower than at the onset of 16 of the 17 recessions over this time frame of nearly a century. The only lower instance was at the start of the eight-month recession at the end of World War II.
The Fed's monthly Industrial Production estimate is accompanied by another closely watched indicator, Capacity Utilization, which is the percentage of US total production capacity being used (available resources includes manufacturing, mining, and electric and gas utilities). In addition to showing cycles of economic growth and demand, Capacity Utilization also serves as a leading indicator of inflation.
Here is a chart of the complete Capacity Utilization series, which the Fed began tracking in 1967. The linear regression assists our understanding of the long-term trend. We've highlighted the post-recession peak in November 2014.
The latest reading is well off its interim peak and slipped below the regression during the summer of 2015.
The Generic Big Four
The chart and table below illustrate the performance of the generic Big Four with an overlay of a simple average of the four since the end of the Great Recession. The data points show the cumulative percent change from a zero starting point for June 2009.
Current Assessment and Outlook
The US economy has been slow in recovering from the Great Recession, and the overall picture has been a mixed bag for well over a year and counting. Employment and Income have been relatively strong. Real Retail Sales have hovered in a narrow range over the past eleven months, and Industrial Production has essentially been in a recession for several months.
The chart below illustrates the average of the Big Four percent is off its all-time high. The post-recession recovery peaked in November 2014, eighteen months ago. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that the NBER's most recent statement on US recession status (that we are not in a recession) is August 2014, three months before the current recovery peak.
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, we've plotted the same data using a "percent off high" technique. In other words, we 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).