Business Cycles

June 16th, 2013

The manufacturing sector accounts for less than 20% of the economy but is probably the major cause of business cycles in the economy.  In the 1990s, the growing development of technology and business services in the U.S., together with what was called “just in time” inventory management, led some economists to declare an end to the business cycle. Cue the loud guffaws.

May’s monthly report on industrial production released Friday showed no monthly gain, after a decline of .4% in April.  The year over year change in the index was just under 2%.  In a separate report from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) released a week ago, the Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) index for May fell into contraction, its lowest reading since June 2009, when the recession was ending.

New Orders and Production components of this index saw sizeable decreases.  Computer and electronic businesses reported a slowdown that they attributed to the sequester spending cuts enacted a few months ago.

The latest data for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft from the U.S. Dept of Commerce showed an uptick after a period of decline in the latter half of 2012; however, there is a month lag in this data set.

The sentiment among small businesses improved somewhat, as shown by the monthly National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) survey.  The overall index of 94 indicates rather tepid expectations of growth by small business owners.  Plans for capital spending to expand business are still at recession levels.

A business builds inventory in anticipation of sales growth.  Since the beginning of this year the net number of small businesses expanding inventory has finally turned positive.

  In a 2003 paper, economist Rolando Pelaez tested an alternative model of the Purchasing Managers Index that would better predict business cycles, specifically the swings in GDP growth.  Assigning varying constant weights to several key components of the overall PMI index, his Constant Weighted Index (CWI) model is more responsive to changes in business conditions and expectations.  In early 2008, the PMI showed mild contraction but Pelaez’ CWI model began a nose dive. It would be many months before the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) would mark the start of a recession in December 2007 but the CWI had already given the indication.  In May of 2009, the CWI reversed course, crossing above the PMI to indicate the end of the contractionary phase of the recession.  It would be much later that the BEA would mark the recession’s end as June 2009.

The CWI index is rather erratic.  We lose a bit of its ability to lead the PMI when we smooth it with a three month moving average but the trend and turning points are more apparent in a graph.

Before the 2001 recession the CWI index led the PMI index down.

OK, great, you say but what does this have to do with my portfolio?  Smoothing introduces a small lag in the CWI but it is a leading, or sometimes co-incident indicator of where the stock market is headed over the next few months.

Let’s look at the last six years.  In December 2007, the smoothed CWI crossed below the PMI, which was at a neutral reading of about 50.  The stock market had faltered for a few months but as 2008 began, the CWI indicated just how weak the underlying economy was.  The NBER would eventually call the start of the recession in December 2007.  In June 2009, the CWI crossed back above the PMI.  Coincidentally, the NBER would later call this the end of the recession.

The period 2000 – 2004 was a seesaw of broken expectations, making it a difficult one to predict because it was, well, unpredictable.  I did not show this example first because this period is a difficult one for many indicators.  Before 9-11, we were already in a weak recession.  Although the official end was declared in November 2001, the effects were long lasting, a preview of what this last recession would be. In 2002, we seemed to be pulling out of the doldrums but the prospect of an Iraq invasion and a general climate of caution, if not fear, prompted concerns of a double dip recession.

An investor who bought and sold when the smoothed CWI crossed above or below 50 would have had some whipsaws but would have come out about even instead of losing 15% over the five year period.

The present day reading of both the CWI and PMI are at the neutral reading of 50.  Given the rather lackluster growth of the manufacturing sector, the robust rise of the stock market since last November indicates just how much the market is riding on expectations and predications of the future decisions of the Federal Reserve regarding future bond purchases and interest rates. Over the past thirteen years, when the year over year percent change in the stock market hits about 22%, the percentage of growth in the index declines.

So what is a normal run of the mill investor to do?  The CWI, a predictor of business cycles, is not published anywhere that I could find. This and many other indicators are used by the whiz kids at investment firms, pension funds, by financial advisors and traders, to anticipate business conditions as well as the movements of the markets.  But look again at the SP500 chart above and remember that it is the composite of millions of geniuses and not so geniuses trying to anticipate the market.  As I have mentioned in previous blogs, when that percentage change drops below zero, it is time for the prudent investor to consider some portfolio adjustments.  Since 1980, the average year over year percent change in the SP500 is 9.7%, using a monthly average of the SP500 index. Despite the recent 20% gains, the average year over year percent gain during the past ten years is only 4.9%.  If we look back to the beginning of the year 2000, the average is only 3.1%.  Those rather meager gains look robust when compared to the NASDAQ index, which is still 25% below its January 2000 high.  Think of that – thirteen years and still 25% down. The Japanese market index, the Nikkei 225, is at the same level as it was in early 1985, almost thirty years ago.  Both of these examples remind us that we need to pay some  attention or pay someone to do it for us.

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