The Big Four Economic Indicators: A Slight Rise in Industrial Production

Note: This commentary has been updated to incorporate the September 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 September shows a month-over-month increase of 0.1 percent (0.06 percent to two decimals), which was below the consensus of 0.2 percent. The tiny increase was made possible because the previous month's -0.4 percent decline was revised downward to -0.5 percent. Industrial Production has contracted for 15 of the last 22 months, but, on a quarterly basis, the third quarter marks the first increase since the third quarter of 2015.

Here is the overview from the Federal Reserve:

Industrial production edged up 0.1 percent in September after falling 0.5 percent in August. For the third quarter as a whole, industrial production rose at an annual rate of 1.8 percent for its first quarterly increase since the third quarter of 2015. Manufacturing output increased 0.2 percent in September and moved up at an annual rate of 0.9 percent in the third quarter. In September, the index for utilities declined 1.0 percent; mining posted a gain of 0.4 percent, which partially reversed its August decline. At 104.2 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production in September was 1.0 percent lower than its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector edged up 0.1 percentage point in September to 75.4 percent, a rate that is 4.6 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 15 of the 17 recessions over this time fame of nearly a century.

Industrial Production Since 1919

Capacity Utilization

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.

Capacity Utilization

The latest reading is well off its interim peak and remains below the regression.