Conference Board Leading Economic Index: Another Record High in January

Thu, Feb 22, 2018 - 9:29am

The latest Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI) for January increased to 108.1 from 107.0 in December. The Coincident Economic Index (CEI) came in at 103.0, up from the previous month.

The Conference Board LEI for the US increased for the fourth consecutive month in January. Large positive contributions from building permits and the financial subcomponents were the main drivers of the strong gain. In the six-month period ending January 2018, the leading economic index increased 3.8 percent (about a 7.8 percent annual rate), faster than the growth of 2.3 percent (about a 4.6 percent annual rate) during the previous six months. In addition, the strengths among the leading indicators remain very widespread. [Full notes in PDF]

Here is a log-scale chart of the LEI series with documented recessions as identified by the NBER. The use of a log scale gives us a better sense of the relative sizes of peaks and troughs than a more conventional linear scale.

For additional perspective on this indicator, see the latest press release, which includes this overview:

“The US LEI accelerated further in January and continues to point to robust economic growth in the first half of 2018. While the recent stock market volatility will not be reflected in the US LEI until next month, consumers’ and business’ outlook on the economy had been improving for several months and should not be greatly impacted,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, Director of Business Cycles and Growth Research at The Conference Board. “The leading indicators reflect an economy with widespread strengths coming from financial conditions, manufacturing, residential construction, and labor markets.”

For a better understanding of the relationship between the LEI and recessions, the next chart shows the percentage-off the previous peak for the index and the number of months between the previous peak and official recessions.

LEI and Its Six-Month Smoothed Rate of Change

Based on suggestions from Neile Wolfe of Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC and Dwaine Van Vuuren of RecessionAlert, we can tighten the recession lead times for this indicator by plotting a smoothed six-month rate of change to further enhance our use of the Conference Board's LEI as a gauge of recession risk.

As we can see, the LEI has historically dropped below its six-month moving average anywhere between 2 to 15 months before a recession. The latest reading of this smoothed rate-of-change suggests no near-term recession risk. Here is a twelve month smoothed out version, which further eliminates the whipsaws:

The Conference Board also includes its Coincident Economic Index (CEI) in each release. It measures current economic activity and is made up of four components: nonagricultural payroll, personal income less transfer payments, manufacturing and trade sales, and industrial production. Based on observations, when the LEI begins to decline, the CEI is still rising. Here's a chart including both the CEI and LEI.

Here is a chart of the LEI/CEI ratio, which is also a leading indicator of recessions.

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