US economy in August: moving sideways

With the (roughly) 11% decline in US equities year-to-date, talk of a US recession has resurfaced. Through mid August, the high frequency economic indicators point to further weakness, rather than a double dip.

In my view, whether or not the US is IN a recession – defined as the coincident variables followed by the NBER (.xls) are turning downward – is really a moot point for a good chunk of the working-aged population. It probably ‘feels’ like the economy never exited recession to many.

As an aside, it would be difficult for the US economy to actually ENTER a contractionary phase right now, since the cyclical forces that normally drag the US into recession – inventories, auto sales, and housing – are at severely depressed levels. Confidence (or lack thereof) can reduce domestic spending and investment – it’s in this respect that the losses in equity equity markets are important. It takes time for shocks to work their way into the economic data. Nevertheless, high frequency indicators do not point to recession…for now.

Claims are elevated but ticked up last week. If claims do not fall back in coming weeks, the unemployment rate will rise again. This could indicate the outset of a contracting economy.



Weekly diesel production shows an increase in transportation activity (please see this post for an explanation of the data).



Read More After the Jump!



The demand for diesel (in real barrels per day) recovered, rising at a rate of roughly 15% annually for each of the weeks of July 29 and August 05. Annual growth declined to -3% in the week of August 12; but this series (even in annual growth rates) is highly volatile, and the 4 week moving average of annual growth decelerated only mildly, from 7% to 6%.

Finally, daily Treasury tax receipts are slowing but growth remains positive.

The chart illustrates the annual growth rate of the 30-day rolling sum of daily withholding receipts for income and employment tax payments. This series proxies the health of the labor market. Spanning the last three months, the annual growth rate decelerated to 4% (May 18 through August 18 this year compared to the same period last year) from 4.6% in the three months previous. There’s no indication of a contraction in tax receipt activity, but a further trend downward in the pace of tax receipt gains would turn some heads.

Nothing to indicate a contraction in the high-frequency data; but the deceleration is worrisome, given that consumers must ‘earn’ their consumption rather than ‘borrow’ for consumption. I don’t feel particularly positive about the state of the US economy. Neither does Mark Thoma.

Rebecca Wilder

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