Chicago Fed: "Index Suggests Economic Growth Moderated In August"

"Index points to a pickup in economic growth in July." This is the headline for this morning's release of the Chicago Fed's National Activity Index, and here is the opening paragraph from the report:

Led by declines in production-related indicators, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) decreased to a neutral value in August from +0.29 in July. Three of the four broad categories of indicators used to construct the index made positive contributions in August, but three categories deteriorated from July. The index’s three-month moving average, CFNAI-MA3, moved up to +0.01 in August from –0.08 in July. [more]

Background on the CFNAI

The Chicago Fed's National Activity Index (CFNAI) is a monthly indicator designed to gauge overall economic activity and related inflationary pressure. It is a composite of 85 monthly indicators as explained in this background PDF file on the Chicago Fed's website. The index is constructed so a zero value for the index indicates that the national economy is expanding at its historical trend rate of growth. Negative values indicate below-average growth, and positive values indicate above-average growth.

The first chart below shows the recent behavior of the index since 2007. The red dots show the indicator itself, which is quite noisy, together with the 3-month moving average (CFNAI-MA3), which is more useful as an indicator of the actual trend for coincident economic activity.

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CFNAI since 2000

For a broad historical context, here is the complete CFNAI historical series dating from March 1967.

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The next chart highlights the -0.7 level. The Chicago Fed explains:

When the CFNAI-MA3 value moves below -0.70 following a period of economic expansion, there is an increasing likelihood that a recession has begun. Conversely, when the CFNAI-MA3 value moves above -0.70 following a period of economic contraction, there is an increasing likelihood that a recession has ended.

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CFNAI and Recessions

The next chart includes an overlay of GDP, which reinforces the accuracy of the CFNAI as an indicator of coincident economic activity.

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Here's a chart of the CFNAI without the MA3 overlay — for the purpose of highlighting the high inter-month volatility.

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CFNAI Volatility

Further underscoring the volatility is the roller-coaster list of CFNAI monthly headlines from the last couple of years.

The Long-Term Economic Trend

In the final chart, we've let Excel draw a linear regression through the CFNAI data series. The slope confirms the casual impression of the previous charts that National Activity, as a function of the 85 indicators in the index, has been declining since its inception in the late 1960s, a trend that roughly coincides with the transition from a good-producing to a post-industrial service economy in the information age.

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