Durable Goods Orders: A Mixed Bag For January

Today’s durable goods report brings mixed news for the economy. That’s a good thing in the sense that the numbers aren’t uniformly discouraging. On the dark side, headline durable goods orders fell last month, tumbling the most since last August. On the bright side, so-called business investment—capital goods orders less aircraft and defense—posted a strong gain in January. Depending on your outlook, the macro glass is either half full or half empty.

Let’s start with the broad measure of new durable goods orders, which slumped 5.2% last month. That’s the biggest slide since last summer. Most of the red ink was due to the volatile transport sector, defense-related aircraft orders in particular. If we ignore transport, durable goods order gained 1.9% in January.

The business investment category did even better last month, advancing 6.3%. That’s the best monthly gain since December 2011. Some analysts say that this measure of orders is especially sensitive to corporate America’s outlook and willingness to spend. The assumption here is that rising new orders for capital goods ex-aircraft and defense is a signal of better days ahead for the economy. Maybe, although I’m not inclined to put too much stock in this indicator, at least not as a lone metric. Like every other data series in isolation, its capacity for flawless signals is limited.

That said, here’s how today’s numbers stack up on a year-over-year basis, which strips out a fair amount of the short-term noise. As you can see, there’s a mixed bag here for reading the cyclical tea leaves. The broad measure of durable goods continues to reflect a weakening trend. For the second month running, new orders overall decreased in January relative to year-earlier levels—a troubling sign.
On the other hand, business investment’s January revival elevated the annual pace for this indicator to positive territory. Indeed, business investment rose 4.7% for the year through last month—the best annual comparison in nearly a year.
No matter how you read today’s durable goods report, the profile for January overall is relatively clear: The economy last month continued to post modest growth. That’s the message based on the three-month average of the Chicago Fed National Activity Index, and it’s also a signal that shows up in The Capital Spectator Economic Trend & Momentum indices.
The report on durable goods always arrives near the end of the monthly cycle for economic data and so by the time this indicator is updated it’s old news for looking in the rear view mirror. How much value does the broad review of new orders hold for looking ahead? I’m not impressed with its track record. Nonetheless, let’s recognize that the weakness in the year-over-year comparison for orders broadly defined is troubling. It’s unclear if this a smoking gun for business cycle, but it could be. If it is, we’ll receive confirming numbers from other reports as the February data starts rolling in.
First up on that score is Friday’s update on the ISM Manufacturing Index. For the moment, analysts remain upbeat and expect that this benchmark of manufacturing activity will remain comfortably over the neutral 50 mark for February, suggesting that the economy will continue to expand. Let’s see how reality compares with expectations. Stay tuned….