The Big Four Economic Indicators: Industrial Production Up 0.3% in September

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 0.3% increase month-over-month, which was at the consensus. Industrial Production peaked in November 2014, only one point higher than its pre-recession peak in November 2007. The year-over-year change is 1.60 percent, up from last month's YoY increase.

Here is the overview from the Federal Reserve:

Industrial production rose 0.3 percent in September. The rates of change for July and August were notably revised; the current estimate for July, a decrease of 0.1 percent, was 0.5 percentage point lower than previously reported, while the estimate for August, a decrease of 0.7 percent, was 0.2 percentage point higher than before. The estimates for manufacturing, mining, and utilities were each revised lower in July. The continued effects of Hurricane Harvey and, to a lesser degree, the effects of Hurricane Irma combined to hold down the growth in total production in September by 1/4 percentage point.[1] For the third quarter as a whole, industrial production fell 1.5 percent at an annual rate; excluding the effects of the hurricanes, the index would have risen at least 1/2 percent. Manufacturing output edged up 0.1 percent in September but fell 2.2 percent at an annual rate in the third quarter. The indexes for mining and utilities in September rose 0.4 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively. At 104.6 percent of its 2012 average, total industrial production in September was 1.6 percent above its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector increased 0.2 percentage point in September to 76.0 percent, a rate that is 3.9 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 10 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, but has recently climbed above the regression.