Leading index forecasts improving U.S. outlook

A monthly index forecasting economic performance in the United States continues to edge up even as the potential increases for stronger growth in the second half of the year.

The Conference Board reported that its Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose a tenth of a percent to 95.2 in May. The index has increased 1.9 percent over the past six months as components of the index have gained strength.

“Despite month-to-month volatility, the LEI’s six-month growth rate remains steady, suggesting that conditions in the economy remain resilient,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, an economist with the Conference Board, a business research and membership group. “ Widespread gains in the leading indicators over the last six months suggest there is some upside potential for economic activity in the second half of the year.”

Ken Goldstein, another economist with the Conference Board, said growth will depend on continued improvement in the housing market and an easing of consumer and business caution, which would allow overall consumption and investment to gain traction. Cutbacks in public spending programs and the drag from foreign trade remain headwinds, however, he said.

For May, only three of the 10 indicators that make up the LEI advanced, but offset retreating indicators. The interest rate spread, a leading credit index and stock prices increased. Building permits, new orders for capital goods and a new orders index decreased. Moreover, average weekly initial claims for unemployment benefits were up. Average weekly manufacturing hours remained unchanged, as did consumer expectations for business conditions.

The Conference Board Coincident Economic Index (CEI), a measure of current economic performance, rose two-tenths of a percent in May to 105.6. With increases in each of the last three months, the CEI has gained five-tenths of a percent over the past six months.

For May, three of four indicators of the CEI advanced: nonfarm payrolls, personal income and sales. Industrial production held steady.

The Lagging Economic Index (LAG), a measure of past economic performance, climbed three-tenths of a percent to 118.6 in May. The LAG has increased seven-tenths of a percent over the past three months.

For May, four of seven components of the LAG advanced: commercial and industrial financing, consumer credit, the cost of services and inventories. Labor costs retreated even as the average duration of unemployment increased. The average prime interest rate charged by banks remained unchanged.