The Big Four Economic Indicators: Industrial Production Up 0.9% in December

Note: This commentary has been updated to incorporate the December 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 December shows a 0.9% increase month-over-month, which was better than the Investing.com consensus of 0.4%. December's figures represent a new peak, overtaking the November 2014 peak. The year-over-year change is 3.56 percent, up from last month's YoY increase.

Here is the overview from the Federal Reserve:

Industrial production moved up 0.2 percent in November after posting an upwardly revised increase of 1.2 percent in October. Manufacturing production also rose 0.2 percent in November, its third consecutive monthly gain. The output of utilities dropped 1.9 percent. The index for mining increased 2.0 percent, as oil and gas extraction returned to normal levels after being held down in October by Hurricane Nate. Excluding the post-hurricane rebound in oil and gas extraction, total industrial production would have been unchanged in November. Total industrial production was 106.4 percent of its 2012 average in November and was 3.4 percent above its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector was 77.1 percent in November, a rate that is 2.8 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 8 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 climbed above the regression in late 2017.