James Picerno

About the Author James Picerno

James Picerno is a financial journalist who has been writing about finance and investment theory for more than twenty years. He writes for trade magazines read by financial professionals and financial advisers. Over the years, he’s written for the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Bloomberg Markets, Mutual Funds, Modern Maturity, Investment Advisor, Reuters, and his popular finance blog, The CapitalSpectator.

US Business Cycle Risk Report

US economic growth has slowed in recent months, but the deceleration to date remains well short of a tipping point for the business cycle, based on a broad set of published reports through April. There’s heightened concern that the economy will remain unusually vulnerable if the weakness persists in the second-quarter. As a result, the yet-to-be published numbers for May could be decisive. Meantime, the current numbers strongly suggest that April wasn’t the start of a new recession for the US. Growth may turn out to be slower than recently anticipated, but it’s not yet obvious that a sluggish pace of expansion will soon lead to a new phase of economic contraction.

Using a methodology outlined in Nowcasting The Business Cycle: A Practical Guide For Spotting Business Cycle Peaks, an aggregate of economic and financial trend behavior suggests that business-cycle risk remained low in April. The Economic Trend and Momentum indices (ETI and EMI, respectively) are still at levels that equate with expansion, albeit at a lesser rate than we’ve seen recently. But even after the soft first quarter, the current profile of published indicators through last month  (12 of 14 data sets) for ETI and EMI reflect positive trends, with the exception of the corporate bond spread.

Here’s a summary of recent activity for the components in ETI and EMI:


Aggregating the data into business cycle indexes continues to reflect positive trends overall. The latest numbers for ETI and EMI indicate that both benchmarks are well above their respective danger zones: 50% for ETI and 0% for EMI. When the indexes fall below those tipping points, we’ll have clear warning signs that recession risk is elevated. Based on the latest updates for April — ETI is 88.1% and EMI is 5.6% — there’s still a comfortable margin of safety between current values and the danger zones, as shown in the chart. (See note below for ETI/EMI design rules.)


Translating ETI’s historical values into recession-risk probabilities via a probit model also suggests that business cycle risk remains low for the US. Analyzing the data with this methodology implies that the odds are virtually nil that the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) — the official arbiter of US business cycle dates — will declare last month as the start of a new recession.


Let’s also consider how ETI’s values may evolve as new data is published.  One way to estimate future values for this index is with an econometric technique known as an autoregressive integrated moving average (ARIMA) model, based on calculations via the “forecast” package for R, a statistical software environment. The ARIMA model calculates the missing data points for each indicator, for each month through June 2015. (Note that February 2015 is currently the latest month with a complete set of published data.) Based on today’s projections, ETI is expected to remain well above its danger zone in the near term.


Forecasts are always suspect, of course, but recent projections of ETI for the near-term future have proven to be relatively reliable guesstimates vs. the full set of published numbers that followed. That’s not surprising, given the broadly diversified nature of ETI. Predicting individual components, by contrast, is prone to far more uncertainty in the short run. As such, the latest projections (the four black dots on the right in the chart above) offer support for optimism. The chart above also includes the range of vintage ETI projections published on these pages in previous months (blue bars), which you can compare with the complete monthly sets of actual data that followed, based on current numbers (red dots). The assumption here is that while any one forecast for a given indicator is likely to be wrong, the errors may cancel out to some degree by aggregating a broad set of predictions. That’s a reasonable assumption via the historical record for the ETI forecasts. For additional perspective on judging the track record of the forecasts, here are the previous updates for the last three months:

17 Apr 2015
18 Mar 2015
19 Feb 2015