ISM Manufacturing Index Rises a Bit Above Expectations

April 2nd, 2014

by Doug Short

Today the Institute for Supply Management published its March Manufacturing Report. The latest headline PMI at 53.7 percent is a small improvement over last month's 53.2 percent. Today's number was slightly below the Investing.com forecast of 54.0.

Here is the key analysis from the report:

Manufacturing expanded in February as the PMI® registered 53.2 percent, an increase of 1.9 percentage points when compared to January's reading of 51.3 percent. A reading above 50 percent indicates that the manufacturing economy is generally expanding; below 50 percent indicates that it is generally contracting.

"The March PMI® registered 53.7 percent, an increase of 0.5 percentage point from February's reading of 53.2 percent, indicating expansion in manufacturing for the 10th consecutive month. The New Orders Index registered 55.1 percent, an increase of 0.6 percentage point from February's reading of 54.5 percent. The Production Index registered 55.9 percent, a substantial increase of 7.7 percentage points compared to February's reading of 48.2 percent. Employment grew for the ninth consecutive month, but at a lower rate by 1.2 percentage points, registering 51.1 percent compared to February's reading of 52.3 percent. Several comments from the panel reflect favorable demand and good business conditions, with some lingering concerns about the particularly adverse weather conditions across the country."

Here is the table of PMI components.

I'm reluctant to put too much focus on this index for various reasons, but they are essentially captured in Briefing.com's Big Picture comment on this economic indicator.

This [the ISM Manufacturing Index] is a highly overrated index. It is merely a survey of purchasing managers. It is a diffusion index, which means that it reflects the number of people saying conditions are better compared to the number saying conditions are worse. It does not weight for size of the firm, or for the degree of better/worse. It can therefore underestimate conditions if there is a great deal of strength in a few firms. The data have thus not been either a good forecasting tool or a good read on current conditions during this business cycle. It must be recognized that the index is not hard data of any kind, but simply a survey that provides broad indications of trends.

The chart below shows the Manufacturing Composite series, which stretches back to 1948. I've highlighted the eleven recessions during this time frame and highlighted the index value the month before the recession starts.

For a diffusion index, the latest reading of 51.3 indicates weak expansion. What sort of correlation does that have with the months before the start of recessions? Here are the eleven data points for the months before recessions arranged in numeric order with the latest data pointed inserted in the sequence (highlighted in red).

42.1, 44.8, 45.7, 47.2, 47.8, 48.5, 49.2, 50.5, 50.7, 53.2, 53.7, 66.2

Today's reading is near the upper end of the range, with nine lower and two higher.

How revealing is today's 0.5 point change from last month? There are 795 monthly data points in this series. The absolute average month-to-month point change is 2.0 points. So month-over-month change in today's headline PMI number has little statistical significance.

Here is a closer look at the series beginning at the turn of the century.

To reiterate the Briefing.com assessment: "The data have thus not been either a good forecasting tool or a good read on current conditions during this business cycle." The ISM reports nevertheless offer an interesting sidebar to the ongoing economic debate.

Note : I use the FRED USRECP series (Peak through the Period preceding the Trough) to highlight the recessions in the charts above. For example, the NBER dates the last cycle peak as December 2007, the trough as June 2009 and the duration as 18 months. The USRECP series thus flags December 2007 as the start of the recession and May 2009 as the last month of the recession, giving us the 18-month duration. The dot for the last recession in the charts above are thus for November 2007. The "Peak through the Period preceding the Trough" series is the one FRED uses in its monthly charts, as illustrated here.

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