Leading indicators underscore positive economic reports

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This post is a guest contribution by Asha Bangalore, vice president and economist at The Northern Trust  Company.

The Conference Board’s Index of Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) posted a solid 1.1% gain in November after a revised 0.4% increase in October.  The LEI has risen at an annual rate of 8.7% in the three months ended November compared with a 0.4% gain during the previous three months (ending August).  The accelerated increase of the LEI implies continued growth of the economy and at a stronger pace compared with the trend seen in recent months.  The possibility of a double-dip discussed frequently in the summer months is almost irrelevant now.

In November, the sole negative contribution was building permits.  The remaining nine components of the LEI advanced, with supplier deliveries and interest rate spread as the two largest contributors.  The November gain of the LEI reflects a widespread positive contribution (90%, diffusion index).

On balance, of the economic reports published in recent weeks, the main message is of improving economic conditions.  The following list of positive and negative aspects of these reports suggests that doubts about the durability of the fragile recovery probably overstated.

Positive developments:

•  Initial jobless claims show a distinct downward trend

• Payroll employment continues to advance, albeit slower

• Retails sales show widespread gains in November and the underlying trend is firming up

• Net credit has risen in November, the third increase in the last five months

• Higher Treasury market yields are a vote of confidence about the economy

•  Factory production has risen at a noticeable pace. Regional factory surveys in December were upbeat

•  Housing starts and permits for new single-family homes rose in November

•  October Pending Home Sales Index posted a strong increase

•  The positive trend of the Index of Leading Economic Indicators supports forecasts of continued economic growth

•  The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index rose in the early-December survey

Negative developments:

•  The 9.8% unemployment rate is a major source of concern for policymakers

•  Sales of homes, both existing and new, declined in October and the elevated level of inventories combined with pressures from home foreclosures is holding down home prices

•  Auto sales held steady in November, after increasing in three out of the four months ended October

Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust, Daily Global Commentary, December 17, 2010.

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