Today the Weekly Leading Index (WLI) of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) registered negative growth for the 19th consecutive week, coming in at -6.9, a fractional improvement over last week’s -7.0. The rate of contraction has been lessening over the past six weeks. The latest weekly number is based on data through October 8.The magnitude of decline from the peak in October 2009 is unprecedented in the Institute’s published data back to 1967. Recently, however, the Institute has disclosed that two earlier decades of data not available to the general public contained comparable declines in WLI growth (in 1951 and 1966) when no recession followed (HT Barry Ritholtz).
The Published Record
The ECRI WLI growth metric has had a respectable (but by no means perfect) record for forecasting recessions. The next chart shows the correlation between the WLI, GDP and recessions.
A significant decline in the WLI has been a leading indicator for six of the seven recessions since the 1960s. It lagged one recession (1981-1982) by nine weeks. The WLI did turned negative 17 times when no recession followed, but 14 of those declines were only slightly negative (-0.1 to -2.4) and most of them reversed after relatively brief periods.
Three of the false negatives were deeper declines. The Crash of 1987 took the Index negative for 68 weeks with a trough of -6.8. The Financial Crisis of 1998, which included the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, took the Index negative for 23 weeks with a trough of -4.5.
The third significant false negative came near the bottom of the bear market of 2000-2002, about nine months after the brief recession of 2001. At the time, the WLI seemed to be signaling a double-dip recession, but the economy and market accelerated in tandem in the spring of 2003, and a recession was avoided.
The Latest WLI Decline
The question, of course, is whether the latest WLI decline is a leading indicator of a recession or a false negative. The published index has never dropped to the current level without the onset of a recession. The deepest decline without a near-term recession was in the Crash of 1987, when the index slipped to -6.8.
Can the Fed take steps to reduce the risk of a near-term recession? The next chart includes an overlay of the Federal Funds Rate.
Lowering the rate has been a primary tool for stimulating a weak economy. As the last chart shows, that tool is not available in our current situation.
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