Leading index: Housing rebound bolstering U.S. prospects

A monthly index forecasting future economic activity in the United States continues to signal growth, bolstered in large part by a rebound in the housing market.

The Conference Board reported that its Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose two-tenths of a percent to 94.1 in January. The index has increased 1.1 percent over the previous six months.

Separate measures of current and past economic performance also increased in January.

Ataman Ozyildirim, an economist with the Conference Board, said increases in the indexes and widespread strength among their indicators point to a slow, but continued, expansion in economic activity in the near term.

Ken Goldstein, another economist with the business research and membership group, agreed: “The indicators point to an underlying economy that remains relatively sound, but sluggish.

“The biggest factor is housing,” Goldstein said. “The housing market is now at twice the level reached during its recessionary lows and will likely continue to improve through the spring, delivering some growth momentum to the labor market and the overall economy.”

Goldstein added a caveat related to automatic federal spending cuts scheduled to soon kick in:  “The biggest risk, however, is the adverse impact of cuts in federal spending.”

For January, six of the 10 indicators of the LEI advanced: building permits, interest rate spread, a leading credit index, new orders for manufactured consumer goods and materials and stock prices. A decrease in average weekly unemployment claims also bolstered the index. Four indicators retreated: average weekly manufacturing hours, consumer expectations, a new orders index and new orders for nondefense capital goods.

The Coincident Economic Index (CEI), a measure of current economic performance, increased four-tenths of a percent to 106.5 in January.

The LEI has climbed 2.1 percent over the past six months.

Three of four indicators of the CEI advanced in January: nonfarm payrolls, personal income and sales. Industrial production declined.

The Lagging Economic Index (LAG), a measure of past economic performance,  also increased four-tenths of a percent in January, climbing to 116.7. The LAG has climbed three-tenths of a percent over the past three months.

For January, just two of seven indicators of the lag advanced.

Commercial and industrial financing increased, while the average duration of unemployment decreased. Three indicators retreated: consumer financing, inventories and labor costs. The average prime interest rate charged by banks and cost of services both remained unchanged.