Revamped leading index forecasts growth

A revamped index forecasting economic performance in the United States continues to signal domestic growth even as the global outlook remains uncertain.

The Conference Board reported that its Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose four-tenths of a percent to 94.3 in December. The index has edged up only about a tenth of a percent over the past six months, although component indicators reflect more strength than weakness.

“The LEI provides some reason for cautious optimism in the first half of 2012,” said Ken Goldstein, an economist at the Conference Board, a business research and membership group.

“This somewhat positive outlook for a strengthening domestic economy would seem to be at odds with a global economy that is losing some steam,” Goldstein added. “Looking ahead, the big question remains whether cooling conditions elsewhere will limit domestic growth or, conversely, growth in the U.S. will lend some economic support to the rest of the globe.”

The December results reflect a comprehensive revision of the LEI, the first since 1996, to offer more accurate predictions of business cycles. Along with the addition of a new credit index, other indicators were replaced and calculation methods revised.

Seven of 10 indicators of the LEI advanced in December, including the average manufacturing workweek, interest rate spread, new orders for capital and consumer goods and stock prices. Moreover, average weekly claims for unemployment benefits declined. Retreating indicators included consumer expectations and a leading credit index. Building permit activity held steady.

The Conference Board reported that its Coincident Economic Index (CEI), a measure of current economic performance, rose three-tenths of a percent to 103.4 in December. The CEI has gained 1.7 percent over the past six months.

For December, all four components of the CEI advanced: nonfarm payrolls, personal income, production and sales The Conference Board Lagging Economic Index (LAG), a measure of past economic performance, also increased three-tenths of a percent in December to climb to 113.4. The LAG has increased 1.2 percent over the past three months.

For December, four of seven components of the LAG advanced: consumer credit, labor costs and the price of services. Moreover, the average duration of unemployment declined. The average prime interest rate and inventories held steady. Business lending declined.