The Big Four Economic Indicators: March Industrial Production Shows Improvement

Note: This commentary has been updated to incorporate the March 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 March shows a 0.5% change month-over-month (0.55% to two decimal points), which was at the Investing.com consensus. The previous month was revised upward from 0.01 percent to 0.06 percent and annual revisions were made. Industrial Production peaked in November 2014, only one point higher than its pre-recession peak in November 2007. The year-over-year change is 1.53 percent, up from last month's fractional YoY increase.

Here is the overview from the Federal Reserve:

Industrial production increased 0.5 percent in March after moving up 0.1 percent in February. The increase in March was more than accounted for by a jump of 8.6 percent in the output of utilities—the largest in the history of the index—as the demand for heating returned to seasonal norms after being suppressed by unusually warm weather in February. Manufacturing output fell 0.4 percent in March, led by a large step-down in the production of motor vehicles and parts; factory output aside from motor vehicles and parts moved down 0.2 percent. The production at mines edged up 0.1 percent. For the first quarter as a whole, industrial production rose at an annual rate of 1.5 percent. At 104.1 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production in March was 1.5 percent above its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector increased 0.4 percentage point in March to 76.1 percent, a rate that is 3.8 percentage points below its long-run (1972–2016) 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 frame of nearly a century.

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 off its interim peak and remains below the regression.