The Conference Board said that the Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose 0.4 percent in April, increasing for the third straight month. The April figure extended the 1.0 percent growth experienced in the March, which had been the fastest pace of growth since last September. Over the past six months, the LEI grew 2.9 percent, which bodes well for future activity.
With that said, the increase in April stemmed primarily from improvements in building permits, favorable credit conditions, and the interest rate spread. Manufacturing activity provided a bit of a drag to the LEI for the month, with an unchanged pace for new orders and a reduced average workweek for production employees. Consumer confidence and the stock market provided only a negligible contribution to the index this time.
The Coincident Economic Index (CEI), which assesses current conditions, increased 0.1 percent in April, slower than the 0.3 percent paces seen in both February and March. Nonetheless, it also shows a rebound from weather-related softness in December and January. Industrial production, which decreased 0.6 percent in April, subtracted 0.08 percentage points from the CEI. The other contributors to the index were all positive, including nonfarm payrolls, personal income, and manufacturing and trade sales.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank also said that economic activity slowed last month, with its National Activity Index (NAI) declining from 0.34 in March to -0.32 in April. The reduction in manufacturing production was a large factor in decrease for the month. The housing data improved but remain a drag on the NAI because the market remains below its historical averages. Employment was also a bright spot, with improvements in nonfarm hiring and a drop in the unemployment rate.
On the positive side, the three-month moving average for the NAI rose from 0.04 in March to 0.19 in April. This was a statistical shift resulting from dropping the very weak January data (due to winter storms) from the three-month average. Nonetheless, it indicates that the U.S. economy is growing above its historical average overall, even as the pace remains below what was measured in November of last year when the moving average was 0.34. It also tends to support the view that we have largely rebounded from weather-related softness.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.