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The Big Four Economic Indicators: Industrial Production Rebounds Accelerates

August 16, 2016

by Doug Short

Note: This commentary has been updated to incorporate the July 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 July shows a month-over-month increase of 0.7 percent, which was significantly better than the Investing.com consensus of 0.3 percent. The previous month's 0.6 increase was revised downward to a 0.4 percent decline. The July advance marks a further improvement from for in indicator that has contracted for 14 of the last 20 months, although on a quarterly basis, Industrial Production has contracted for the past three quarters.

Here is the overview from the Federal Reserve:

Industrial production rose 0.7 percent in July after moving up 0.4 percent in June. The advance in July was the largest for the index since November 2014. Manufacturing output increased 0.5 percent in July for its largest gain since July 2015. The index for utilities rose 2.1 percent as a result of warmer-than-usual weather in July boosting demand for air conditioning. The output of mining moved up 0.7 percent; the index has increased modestly, on net, over the past three months after having fallen about 17 percent between December 2014 and April 2016. At 104.9 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production in July was 0.5 percent lower than its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector increased 0.5 percentage point in July to 75.9 percent, a rate that is 4.1 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 fame of nearly a century. The only lower instance was at the start of the eight-month recession at the end of World War II.

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.

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 been below the post-recession trend for 18 of the last 20 months, and Industrial Production has essentially been in a recession, although we can be hopeful that the March low was a trough and that IP may now be in recovery mode.

Here is a percent-off-high chart based on an average of the Big Four. The interim high was in November 2014. The indicator responsible for this decline is Industrial Production. Incidentally, the last time the average of the four set an all-time high was in January 2006.

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). Here is our four-pack showing the indicators with this technique.

Big Four

Now let's examine the behavior of these indicators across time. The first chart below graphs the period from 2000 to the present, thereby showing us the behavior of the four indicators before and after the two most recent recessions. Rather than having four separate charts, we've created an overlay to help us evaluate the relative behavior of the indicators at the cycle peaks and troughs. (See the note below on recession boundaries).

Big Four since 2000

The chart above is an excellent starting point for evaluating the relevance of the four indicators in the context of two very different recessions. In both cases, the bounce in Industrial Production matches the NBER trough while Employment and Personal Incomes lagged in their respective reversals.

As for the start of these two 21st century recessions, the indicator declines are less uniform in their behavior. We can see, however, that Employment and Personal Income were laggards in the declines.

Now let's look at the 1972-1985 period, which included three recessions -- the savage 16-month Oil Embargo recession of 1973-1975 and the double dip of 1980 and 1981-1982 (6-months and 16-months, respectively).

Big Four 1972-1985

And finally, for sharp-eyed readers who can don't mind squinting at a lot of data, here's a cluttered chart from 1959 to the present. That is the earliest date for which all four indicators are available. The main lesson of this chart is the diverse patterns and volatility across time for these indicators. For example, retail sales and industrial production are far more volatile than employment and income.

Big Four Since 1959

The charts above focus on the Big Four individually, either separately or overlaid. Now let's take a quick look at an aggregate of the four. The next chart is an index created by equally weighting the four and indexing them to 100 for the January 1959 start date. We've used a log scale to give an accurate indication of growth and also added an exponential regression to assist us in seeing the secular patterns of faster and slower growth. As we can readily see, growth of this aggregate indicator has slowed dramatically since the end of the last recession.

Big Four Aggregate Since 1959

Now let's plot the percent off high for this aggregate index. As we immediately recognize, it is completely worthless as leading indicator of recessions. The aggregate index set a new high the month before the recession began for five of the eight recessions since the early 1960s.

Big Four Aggregate Percent off Highs

We can construct a better leading indicator by plotting the average of the percent off highs for each of the four, which is the technique we've used in the next chart. Here we've highlighted the months when all four indicators were at all-time highs. The dashed line shows the -0.93% average of the four at recession starts.

Big Four Average Since 1959

The chart clearly illustrates the savagery of the last recession. It was much deeper than the closest contender in this timeframe, the 1973-1975 Oil Embargo recession.

Here is a closer look at the charting technique for the three recessions since 1985.

Big Four Average Since 1985


Appendix: Chart Gallery with Notes

Each of the four major indicators discussed in this article are illustrated below in three different data manipulations:

  1. A log scale plotting of the data series to ensure that distances on the vertical axis reflect true relative growth. This adjustment is particularly important for data series that have changed significantly over time.
  2. A year-over-year representation to help, among other things, identify broader trends over the years.
  3. A percent-off-high manipulation, which is particularly useful for identifying trend behavior and secular volatility.

Total Nonfarm Employees

There are many ways to plot employment. The one referenced by the Federal Reserve researchers as one of the NBER indicators is Total Nonfarm Employees (PAYEMS).

Nonfarm Payrolls

Nonfarm Payrolls YoY

Nonfarm Payrolls Percent Off Highs

Industrial Production

The US Industrial Production Index (INDPRO) is the oldest of the four indicators, stretching back to 1919, although we've dropped the earlier decades and started in 1950.

Industrial Production

Industrial Production YoY

Industrial Production Percent Off Highs

Real Retail Sales

This indicator is a splicing of the discontinued retail sales series (RETAIL, discontinued in April 2001) with the Retail and Food Services Sales (RSAFS) and deflated by the seasonally adjusted Consumer Price Index (CPIAUCSL). We've used a splice point of January 1995 because that date was mentioned in the FRED notes. Our experiments with other splice techniques (e.g., 1992, 2001 or using an average of the overlapping years) didn't make a meaningful difference in the behavior of the indicator in proximity to recessions. We've chained the data to the latest CPI.

Real Retail Sales

Real Retail Sales YoY

Real Retail Sales Percent Off Highs

Real Personal Income Less Transfer Receipts

This data series is computed by taking Personal Income (PI) less Personal Current Transfer Receipts (PCTR) and deflated using the Personal Consumption Expenditure Price Index (PCEPI). We've chained the data to the latest price index value.

The "Tax Planning Strategies" annotation refers to shifting income into the current year to avoid a real or expected tax increase.

Real Personal Income

Real Personal Income YoY

Real Personal Income Percent Off Highs

Transfer Payments largely consist of retirement and disability insurance benefits, medical benefits, income maintenance benefits (more here).

The chart below shows the Transfer Payment portion of Personal Income. We've included recessions to help illustrate the impact of the business cycle on this metric.

Transfer Receipts as Percent of Income

A Note on Recessions: Recessions are represented as the peak month through the month preceding the trough to highlight the recessions in the charts above. For example, the NBER dates the last cycle peak as December 2007, the trough as June 2009 and the duration as 18 months. The "Peak through the Period preceding the Trough" series is the one FRED uses in its monthly charts, as explained in the FRED FAQs illustrated in this Industrial Production chart.