Economic indicators to watch
Wells Fargo economist Mark Vitner came to town on Sept. 11 to present the bank’s version of an economic forecast. While I won’t delve into Vitner’s analysis here, I will share a few tidbits on Vitner’s favorite economic indicators.
Vitner -- a UGA grad, by the way – highlighted two monthly statistics. The first, and best, is the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), which comes out at the beginning of each month. The index basically reflects a survey of purchasing managers in the manufacturing sector who are asked about five issues: new orders, inventory levels, production, supplier deliveries and employment.
Managers are asked if the environment in those areas is better than the previous month, worse or about the same. A “better” answer is scored as one point, “worse” is minus-1 and “same” is a zero. A score of 51 or better represents expansion in the manufacturing sector; 49 or worse means contraction.
Vitner isn’t alone in putting heavy credence on the PMI – former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan once classified the index as the one to watch.
For the record, the U.S. PMI for September was 49.6.
Vitner’s second-favorite economic indicator is a more familiar one: the Consumer Confidence Index. That 5,000-household survey comes out late each month and includes questions about current confidence as well as inquires about how consumers feel about the future. Future expectations carry more weight (60 percent to 40 percent).
The issues addressed are business conditions (current and six months out), employment conditions (current and six months out) and family income (for the next six months). Like the PMI, survey respondents can answer better, worse or about the same.
Unlike the PMI, the monthly score should be viewed from a trend perspective (is it rising or falling compared to recent months?) rather than how it compares to a benchmark. The CCI has a benchmark – 100 -- but it is tied to where consumer confidence stood in 1985.
The U.S. CCI for August was 60.6 in August, its lowest reading since October 2011.
Vitner’s preference for these two indicators is easy to understand: manufacturers are arguably the nation’s most important employers and consumers are, well, you and me. The fact that one is released at the beginning of the month and the other at the end and both are essentially real-time indicators (unlike labor and housing stats, which are lagging indicators) gives them more clout.
So keep an eye out for those indexes in the month ahead.