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ISM Manufacturing Index: Lowest Reading Since May 2013

October 1, 2015

by Jill Mislinski

Today the Institute for Supply Management published its monthly Manufacturing Report for September. The latest headline PMI was 50.2 percent, a decrease of 0.9% from the previous month and below the forecast of 50.6. This was the 33rd consecutive month of expansion.

Here is the key analysis from the report:

"The September PMI® registered 50.2 percent, a decrease of 0.9 percentage point from the August reading of 51.1 percent. The New Orders Index registered 50.1 percent, a decrease of 1.6 percentage points from the reading of 51.7 percent in August. The Production Index registered 51.8 percent, 1.8 percentage points below the August reading of 53.6 percent. The Employment Index registered 50.5 percent, 0.7 percentage point below the August reading of 51.2 percent. Backlog of Orders registered 41.5 percent, a decrease of 5 percentage points from the August reading of 46.5 percent. The Prices Index registered 38 percent, a decrease of 1 percentage point from the August reading of 39 percent, indicating lower raw materials prices for the 11th consecutive month. The New Export Orders Index registered 46.5 percent, the same reading as in August. Comments from the panel are mixed with some concern about the global economy and customer confidence."

Here is the table of PMI components.

The ISM Manufacturing Index should be viewed with a bit of skepticism for for various reasons, which are essentially captured in's Big Picture comment on this economic indicator.

This [the ISM Manufacturing Index] is a highly overrated index. It is merely a survey of purchasing managers. It is a diffusion index, which means that it reflects the number of people saying conditions are better compared to the number saying conditions are worse. It does not weight for size of the firm, or for the degree of better/worse. It can therefore underestimate conditions if there is a great deal of strength in a few firms. The data have thus not been either a good forecasting tool or a good read on current conditions during this business cycle. It must be recognized that the index is not hard data of any kind, but simply a survey that provides broad indications of trends.

The chart below shows the Manufacturing Composite series, which stretches back to 1948. The eleven recessions during this time frame are indicated along with the index value the month before the recession starts.

ISM Manufacturing

For a diffusion index, the latest reading of 52.7 indicates expansion. What sort of correlation does that have with the months before the start of recessions? Check out the red dots in the chart above.

How revealing is today's 0.9 point change from last month? There are 813 monthly data points in this series. The absolute average month-to-month point change is 2.0 points, and the median change is 1.5 points.

Here is a closer look at the series beginning at the turn of the century.

Since 2000

To reiterate the assessment: "The data have thus not been either a good forecasting tool or a good read on current conditions during this business cycle." The ISM reports nevertheless offer an interesting sidebar to the ongoing economic debate.

Note: This commentary used the FRED USRECP series (Peak through the Period 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 USRECP series thus flags December 2007 as the start of the recession and May 2009 as the last month of the recession, giving us the 18-month duration. The dot for the last recession in the charts above are thus for November 2007. The "Peak through the Period preceding the Trough" series is the one FRED uses in its monthly charts, as illustrated here.