Economic activity in the US continued to decelerate in May, according to this morning’s update of the three-month moving average of the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI-MA3). Last month’s reading slid to -0.36, the lowest in nearly four years. Despite the recent downtrend, CFNAI-MA3 remains above the tipping point of -0.70 that marks the start of a new recession, according to the Chicago Fed’s guidelines. By this standard, the economy was still expanding last month, although at a rate that’s well below the historical trend. In short, macro momentum has dropped to a dangerously slow pace.
The monthly data for the Chicago Fed National Activity Index looks even weaker. Although this metric is quite noisy, the sharp drop for the monthly metric in May is still striking—a decline to -0.51 in May from +0.05 in the previous month. Summarizing the events for May, the Chicago Fed reports that “all four broad categories of indicators that make up the index decreased from April, and all four categories made negative contributions to the index in May.”
Overall, it appears that the US economy is close to the edge. It’s debatable if the downside momentum will deteriorate further or rebound. This much is clear: if the June economic profile, which is still largely a mystery, stumbles further, we may be looking at a new NBER-defined recession.
An early sign of how the risk profile is shaping up for this month arrives in a few weeks, when the Labor Dept. publishes the June employment report. The key question: Was the dramatic slowdown in last month’s job growth a sign of things to come?
On that note, today’s weekly update on jobless claims looks encouraging. New filings for unemployment benefits fell sharply to a seasonally adjusted 259,000 for the week through June 18. That’s close to a multi-decade low; taken at face value, the low level suggests that the labor market will continue to expand at a healthy pace. As such, the odds appear low that a new recession is near, at least by this metric. Even better, the unadjusted year-over-year change for claims fell last week vs. the year-earlier level, reversing what had been a worrisome pattern of annual increases in recent weeks.
Nonetheless, the big picture for the US macro trend is cloudy at best. One of June’s early data points–Markit’s US Manufacturing PMI–ticked up, hinting at a slight rebound this month for the sector. “The flash PMI for June brought welcome news of improved performance of manufacturing,” said Chris Williamson, Markit’s chief economist. He added, however, that “the sector still looks to have acted as a drag on the economy in the second quarter, leaving the economy reliant on the service sector and consumers in particular to drive growth.”
The bottom line: Growth has certainly slowed in the second quarter and it’s unclear if momentum will stabilize or deteriorate further. As such, the next several weeks of economic updates may determine if the worst is yet to come.