CB Leading Economic Index: Fragile Outlook for U.S. Economy

The latest Conference Board Leading Economic Index (LEI) decreased in March to its lowest level since May 2020. The index fell 0.3% from last month to 102.4. Overall, the LEI continues to signal a fragile outlook for the U.S. economy.

“February’s uptick in the U.S. LEI proved to be ephemeral as the Index posted a decline in March,” said Justyna Zabinska-La Monica, Senior Manager, Business Cycle Indicators, at The Conference Board. “Negative contributions from the yield spread, new building permits, consumers’ outlook on business conditions, new orders, and initial unemployment insurance claims drove March’s decline. The LEI’s six-month and annual growth rates remain negative, but the pace of contraction has slowed. Overall, the Index points to a fragile—even if not recessionary—outlook for the U.S. economy. Indeed, rising consumer debt, elevated interest rates, and persistent inflation pressures continue to pose risks to economic activity in 2024. The Conference Board forecasts GDP growth to cool after the rapid expansion in the second half of 2023. As consumer spending slows, US GDP growth is expected to moderate over Q2 and Q3 of this year.” More

Background on the Conference Board Leading Economic Index® (LEI)

The LEI is a composite index of several indicators. It is a predictive variable that anticipates, or leads, turning points in the business cycle and anticipates where the economy is heading. Since the LEI is comprised of multiple components, it is meant to provide a clearer picture as it is able to smooth out volatility associated with individual components. The ten components of Conference Board LEI include: Average weekly hours in manufacturing; Average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance; Manufacturers’ new orders for consumer goods and materials; ISM® Index of New Orders; Manufacturers’ new orders for nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft orders; Building permits for new private housing units; S&P 500® Index of Stock Prices; Leading Credit Index; Interest rate spread (10-year Treasury bonds less federal funds rate); Average consumer expectations for business conditions.

Conference Board's Leading Economic Index Components

Here is a chart of the LEI series with documented recessions as identified by the NBER. Note the peaks of the index preceding each of the recessions and the troughs occurring near the end of each recession.

Conference Board's Leading Economic Index

Leading Economic Index and Recession Risk

For a better understanding of the relationship between the LEI and recessions, the next chart shows the percentage off the previous peak for the index. We are currently 13.1% off the 2021 peak. The chart also calls out the number of months between the previous peak and official recessions. On average, there is usually 10.6 months between a peak and a recession. We are currently 27 months off from the 2021 peak.

Leading Economic Index and Recessions