Leading index signals slowing growth ahead

A monthly index forecasting economic performance in the United States continues to advance, but at a slowing pace that portends “sluggish” conditions.

The Conference Board reported that its Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose two-tenths of a percent to 116.4 in September.

While the LEI has gained 1.1 percent over the past three months, the pace of growth has slowed. Moreover, weakness among the 10 indicators that comprise the index has become slightly more widespread.

“The slow pace in the LEI suggests a growing chance that this sluggish economy is going to be here for a while,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, an economist with the Conference Board, a business research and membership group.

Ken Goldstein, another economist with the Conference Board, agreed.

“The LEI is pointing to soft economic conditions through the end of 2011,” Goldstein said. “There is a risk that already low confidence — consumer, business and investor — could weaken further, putting downward pressure on demand and tipping the economy into recession. The probability of a downturn starting over the next few months remains at about 50 percent.”

Over the six months ending in September, the LEI advanced 1.8 percent. That compares to 4 percent growth during the previous six-month period.

For September, five of 10 indicators of the LEI advanced, including consumer expectations, the interest rate spread on 10-year treasury bonds, money supply, new orders for manufactured consumer gods and materials and supplier deliveries. Four indicators retreated: building permits, new orders for capital goods and stock prices. In addition, average weekly initial claims for unemployment benefits were up.

Average weekly manufacturing hours held steady.

The Coincidence Economic Index (CEI), a measure of current economic performance, edged up a tenth to 103.3. The CEI has increased four-tenths of a percent over the six-month period ending in September.

For September, all four indicators of the CEI advanced: nonfarm payrolls, personal income, productivity and sales.

The Lagging Economic Index (LAG), a measure of past economic performance, rose two-tenths of a percent to 110.4 in September. The LAG has increased seven-tenths of a percent over the past three months.

For September, three of seven indicators of the LAG retreated. Consumer credit and labor costs were down, while the average duration of unemployment increased. Two indicators advanced — business loans and the price of services. Inventories and the average prime interest rate both held steady.

Quarterly survey results reflect less optimism among CEOs. A quarterly measure of confidence among business executives has declined to its lowest level in more than two years.

The Conference Board reported that its Measure of CEO Confidence fell to 42 for the third quarter of 2011, down 13 points from the second quarter.

The measure is based on the results of surveys of chief executive officers in a range of industry sectors. A reading below 50 reflect more negative than positive responses.

In assessing current economic conditions, only 11 percent of CEOs responding to the third-quarter surveys said conditions have improved over the past six months, down from 33 percent in the second quarter.

CEOs were similarly less upbeat in their outlook for the next six months: only 19 percent of executives expect conditions to improve, down from 43 percent in the second quarter.