Leading index slips, but still forecasts growth ahead

Ataman Ozyildirim

An index forecasting economic conditions in the United States declined for the first time in nearly a year as concerns mount over the COVID-19 pandemic, higher prices and supply chain disruptions.

The Conference Board reported its Leading Economic Index (LEI) retreated three-tenths of a percent to 119.6 in January. The decline was the first since February 2021.

Over the past six months, the LEI increased 2.6 percent, less than the 4.6 percent gain in the six-month span before that.

Still, separate measures of current and past conditions increased in January. And the index continues to signal improving conditions in the months ahead.

“Widespread strength among the leading indicators still point to continued, albeit slower, economic growth into the spring,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, senior director of economic research at the Conference Board, a member-driven think tank based in New York.

“However, labor shortages, inflation and the potential of new COVID-19 variants pose risks to growth in the near term,” Ozyildirim said.

The Conference Board projects gross domestic product — the broad measure of goods and services produced in the country — to grow 3.5 percent on a year-over-year basis in 2022.

For January, six of 10 indicators of the LEI advanced — building permits, interest rate spread, leading credit and new orders indexes and new orders for capital and consumer goods. Average weekly manufacturing hours, consumer expectations and stock prices retreated. An increase in average weekly initial claims for unemployment benefits also pulled down the index.

The Coincident Economic Index rose a half a percent to 107.9. The index has increased 1.4 percent over the past six months.

For January, all four indicators advanced — industrial production, nonfarm payrolls, personal income and sales.

The Lagging Economic Index increased seven-tenths of a percent to 110.2. The index has increased 1.2 percent over the past three months.

For January, four of seven indicators advanced, including commercial and industrial financing, consumer credit and the cost of services. A decreased in the average duration of unemployment also bolstered the index. Labor costs pulled down the index. Inventories and the average prime rate charged by banks held steady.