Haver Analytics
Haver Analytics


Joseph G. Carson

Joseph G. Carson, Former Director of Global Economic Research, Alliance Bernstein.   Joseph G. Carson joined Alliance Bernstein in 2001. He oversaw the Economic Analysis team for Alliance Bernstein Fixed Income and has primary responsibility for the economic and interest-rate analysis of the US. Previously, Carson was chief economist of the Americas for UBS Warburg, where he was primarily responsible for forecasting the US economy and interest rates. From 1996 to 1999, he was chief US economist at Deutsche Bank. While there, Carson was named to the Institutional Investor All-Star Team for Fixed Income and ranked as one of Best Analysts and Economists by The Global Investor Fixed Income Survey. He began his professional career in 1977 as a staff economist for the chief economist’s office in the US Department of Commerce, where he was designated the department’s representative at the Council on Wage and Price Stability during President Carter’s voluntary wage and price guidelines program. In 1979, Carson joined General Motors as an analyst. He held a variety of roles at GM, including chief forecaster for North America and chief analyst in charge of production recommendations for the Truck Group. From 1981 to 1986, Carson served as vice president and senior economist for the Capital Markets Economics Group at Merrill Lynch. In 1986, he joined Chemical Bank; he later became its chief economist. From 1992 to 1996, Carson served as chief economist at Dean Witter, where he sat on the investment-policy and stock-selection committees.   He received his BA and MA from Youngstown State University and did his PhD coursework at George Washington University. Honorary Doctorate Degree, Business Administration Youngstown State University 2016. Location: New York.

Publications by Joseph G. Carson

  • In the last twenty-five years, asset price cycles have become more dominant in business cycle analysis, and in doing so, asset inflation cycles have become the modern-day form of inflation. Their importance has become so critical that they have become an explicit part of monetary policy via its new tool, quantitative purchases, whose primary purpose is to increase asset prices/values. With the Federal Reserve now a key player, do asset price cycles still exhibit similar boom and bust patterns as was the case in the past? Or can monetary policy permanently elevate asset prices above and beyond economic and financial fundamentals?

    Asset Price Cycles

    Several theories help to explain why asset price cycles have become more significant and more volatile over the past twenty-five years.

    First, monetary policymakers changed its operating framework in the mid-to-late 1990s, just before the asset price tech bubble. Policymakers abandoned the money supply and credit anchors and started to track real official interest (i.e., Fed Funds level less consumer price index). That created an informal price-targeting policy regime, which years later became formal and removed a policy framework that responded to financial conditions and imbalances that could trigger future inflation or economic problems. Ever since the change in its framework, policymakers have refused to use official rates to dampen speculative and significant asset price cycles.

    Second, in the late 1990s, BLS removed the house price signal (i.e., it stopped surveying owner homes for the rent calculation) from its measure of consumer price inflation. That change further broke the link between real estate and consumer price inflation and changed the correlation between real estate and equity prices to positive from negative. So, real and financial asset price cycles became mutually inclusive, which was the opposite of what was usually the case in previous cycles.

    Third, globalization (i.e., the ability to import cheap goods) played a role in the US inflation cycle as it helped dampen goods price inflation. With monetary policy shifted exclusively to reported inflation and less to financial conditions, tame consumer price inflation contributed to investors speculating, and often winning that monetary policy will remain easy regardless of asset inflation.

    Asset price cycles do not generate public outcry as general inflation cycles, even though history shows they can be equally destructive and destabilizing. That could be because asset price upswings can generate substantial wealth gains while general inflation penalizes everyone. Yet, policymakers have a mandate for financial stability, so they must stand up against the crowd even if it's politically unpopular.

    Asset price imbalances or bubbles are hard to detect in real-time and can last long. Yet, one can gain perspective by comparing current market valuations of real and financial assets to past periods of boom and bust.

    During the tech bubble, the market value of the real estate and equities on household balance sheets to nominal GDP spiked to a record 2.5 times, falling back to below two during the bust (see chart). The housing bubble helped fuel a more significant spike in market valuations to roughly three times GDP, and again, history repeated itself, as it often does in finance, with market valuation falling back to below two.

    The Fed's QE 1 program helped asset prices recover ground lost during the Great Financial Recession, and QE 2 has pushed asset values to GDP to a new record high. Based on Q4 changes in asset prices and GDP, the ratio is estimated at 3.5, just shy of the record high at the end of 2021. If history were to repeat itself, it would take a 35% to 40% decline in both real estate and equity values to match the fall in the Asset/GDP ratio following the tech and housing bubbles. That is not a forecast but an illustration of how far current valuation have deviated from trend. Liquid assets correct sooner and more sharply than real assets so the equity and real estate declines, if they do occur, would not be proportional.

    Can monetary policy permanently increase the nominal values of real and financial assets with its new policy tool (QE)? Monetary policy can make things look better and last longer, and QE has done that. But to permanently increase the earnings power and asset valuations is not something monetary policy can do. Every excessive asset and non-asset price cycle in history eventually broke for one reason or another. The current cycle should be no different.

    Policymakers are debating when to reduce official rates because general inflation has slowed. Reducing official rates would be a significant policy mistake because of the price imbalance in the asset markets. Instead, policymakers should comprehensively review their policies because the economy's performance, evident with the strong job and wage gains in January, says the total stance of monetary policy remains too easy. In doing the review policymakers will learn that their new tool of quantitative purchases offsets a significant chunk of their official rate policy. In the current climate, it makes more sense to accelerate the reduction of the Fed's balance sheet than to lower official rates.

  • The US has experienced two asset bubbles in the last twenty years, and a third one, bigger than the prior two, has been underway for a few years. Yet, unlike the previous two, which were a function of investor optimism about new technologies and easy credit conditions and the belief that housing prices never fall, the current asset cycle is a function of monetary policy.

    The Federal Reserve's influence in the financial markets has grown substantially since the Great Financial Crisis. The increased influence stems primarily from their new financial tool, quantitative easing (QE), or the purchases of debt securities. QE lowers interest rates (making the future value of equities relative to interest-bearing securities more attractive) and increases the demand for risky assets (mainly equities) by removing the supply of safer debt securities.

    The Fed never fully reversed its first QE program before another adverse event (i.e., the pandemic) triggered a second and even more extensive program. At its peak in 2022, the Fed's holding of debt securities topped $8.5 trillion, up from $3.8 trillion before the pandemic, and currently stands at $7.2 trillion. This has had a ratchet effect, lifting asset values far above fundamental values, and the positive impact remains in play.

    Determining when asset values are running counter to underlying fundamentals is difficult. Yet, one can get perspective by comparing current valuations to past periods.

    Since QE's second program in 2020, the market valuation of tangible and equity assets relative to GDP has increased from 2.5 to 3.3 times. The latest reading is for Q3 2023. Given the surge in equity prices in the fourth quarter, the ratio of assets to GDP could come close to its record high of 3.6 at the end of 2021. By comparison, this ratio peaked at 2.9 during the housing bubble and 2.4 in the tech bubble.

    The prior two asset bubbles were pricked or unwound by market forces. The tech bubble burst when hundreds of new start-ups ran through their capital and failed to become profitable. The housing bubble burst when people had to refinance at higher mortgage rates, and speculators could not unload the homes they bought.

    Critics of QE have always focused on its impact on reported inflation. QE does cause inflation, but not the one that shows up in the CPI or PPI. It is asset inflation, pure and simple. So, the Fed should study the impact of QE on its financial stability mandate, not its inflation and employment mandates.

    Yet, how does an asset bubble burst when a non-market buyer like the Federal Reserve drives it? The 500 basis point increase in official rates would have had a much more significant and sustained negative impact on equity and housing markets if QE did not exist on the scale it does.

    Monetary policy can make things appear better or run longer. Still, even though there is no law of gravity in finance, recent history does show financial euphoria not grounded in solid economic fundamentals is not sustainable. The significant over-valuation of tangible and financial assets poses a substantial risk to the economy, and history says it's not if but when it will unwind.

  • Pent-up demand and record monetary and fiscal stimulus drove' inflation's first act. Inflation's second act will revolve around higher house prices, partly driven by record financial wealth and higher wages. Inflation's second act may not run as hot as the first, but it will only be broken with a monetary response.

    Statistically, reported inflation has been decelerating, but actual inflation, especially core inflation, has risen again. House price inflation, which is not part of the official price index, has rebounded over the past five months and stands nearly 5% higher than year-ago levels, according to the Cass-Shiller home price index.

    The government measure of consumer prices does not include house prices but instead uses an imputed rent measure as a substitute or proxy. But that is not a measure of inflation. For one, it's not an actual price; secondly, no homeowners have ever experienced or paid that inflation. To be accurate and timely, inflation measurement must use transactional prices that people confront in the marketplace. One of the reasons the spike in core inflation in recent years was not as disorderly as previous periods of similar inflation was because two-thirds of households, or homeowners, never felt or experienced it.

    House price inflation could run hot for many months. Household's direct holdings of equities relative to real estate stand at close to their highest level recorded during the tech boom. Back then, there was massive portfolio reshuffling away from equities and toward tangible assets, and it should happen again, especially given the sharp drop in borrowing costs in recent months.

    The second act of the inflation cycle will also include significant wage increases. In Q4, UPS workers won the most lucrative wage and benefits package in history, lifting wages immediately by roughly 10%. UAW won an 11% wage increase in year one and additional gains over the contract's life. That triggered a flurry of wage increases at non-union companies; for example, Volkswagen raised pay by 11% at its Tennessee plant, Nissan increased wages by 10%, Honda an 11% increase, Toyota by 9%, Tesla hiked wages by 9% at its battery plant, and Hyundai said it would lift wages by 25% over a series of years. Also, Congress recently approved a 5.2% pay increase for federal workers, the most significant annual increase in forty years.

    The large and broad wage increases indicate at least a 5% increase in the employment cost index (ECI) in 2024. Since the ECI series started in 1983, there have been only three years in which the annual increase topped 5%, the last being 1990. 2024 should be the fourth; at some point during the year, the Fed will realize a 5% increase in employee costs is inconsistent with a 2% inflation target.

    Inflation's second act may not run as hot as the first, but it will be hard to break without a monetary policy response.

  • At the outset of 2023, most forecasters, even some policymakers, thought a mild recession was in store for the economy. Yet, the economy expanded at an annualized rate of 3% during the first three quarters and looks to grow somewhat slower in the fourth quarter. What happened? Here are five reasons why the economy beat the odds and did not fall into a recession in 2023.

    First, the inverted Treasury yield curve was "artificial." The inversion of the yield curve in the fourth quarter of 2022 was one of the most cited reasons for the recession occurring in 2023, especially with the Fed telegraphing more official rate hikes. But yield curve inversion was a direct result of another Fed policy tool.

    Before the Federal Reserve started raising official rates in March 2022, it embarked on the most extensive quantitative easing (QE) program in history, purchasing approximately $4.5 trillion of debt securities in 24 months. The primary purpose of QE is to keep long-term interest rates (one side of the yield curve measure) lower than otherwise would be the case. Some analysts estimated QE was the equivalent of 150 to 250 basis points of Fed easing. Even today, the Fed's balance sheet is approximately $3.5 trillion above when they started QE in March 2020.

    Second, monetary policy was not restrictive. Monetary policy influences the growth of nominal spending. At the end of Q3 2023, nominal GDP growth of 6.3% of the past year was still 100 basis points over the fed funds rate level. There has never been a recession in the past 50 years in which the level of federal funds did not equal or exceed the growth in nominal GDP.

    Third, interest-sensitive sectors grew in 2023. The goods and structures sectors expanded each quarter in 2023, hitting a new record high in Q3, with an annualized growth rate of 6.9% and 3% in the past twelve months. If the economy were to enter or be in a recession, it would be most visible in these two sectors as they have consistently contracted during recession periods.

    Fourth, labor demand outpaced labor supply. In 2023, the labor market was unbalanced, with the number of job openings exceeding the number of unemployed workers. At the end of Q3 2023, there were 9.5 million job openings or 1.5 jobs for every unemployed person.

    Fifth, household liquidity grew in 2023. Based on the current level of equity prices and the rally in bond yields, household direct holdings of equities, debt securities, and deposits are estimated to increase between $10 and $15 trillion in 2023. Fed tightening cycles are supposed to drain liquidity, but that did not happen in 2023.

    Many of these factors are still operative for 2024. The most significant positive factors for 2024 are the need for labor and the growth in household liquidity, as both would support continued growth in consumer spending.

    The wild card is what happens to official and market interest rates in 2024. If the Fed raises official rates again, market rates could quickly reverse the recent decline in yields. That would have a huge and abrupt negative impact on equity prices and household liquidity; people's equity holdings account for 55% of total liquid assets directly held.

    Many factors could trigger a bad outcome in 2024. But those factors need to drain liquidity and trigger contraction in interest-sensitive sectors based on the history of recessions.

  • Monetary policy influences nominal spending in the economy. In the third quarter, nominal GDP grew 8.6% annualized. So far, in 2023, nominal GDP is running at an annualized pace of 6%. That follows a 10.6% gain in 2021 and a 9.1% gain in 2022. The three-year increase, 2021 to 2023, represents the fastest three-year advance in nominal GDP since the mid-1980s.

    The economy's nominal growth performance has two critical messages/implications for policymakers and analysts/portfolio managers regarding Fed policy and market rates.

    First, except for the non-economic slowdown following the pandemic, it has taken a Fed funds rate equal to or above the growth in nominal GDP to engineer a sustained growth slowdown/recession. The target on the Fed Funds rate is still 75 basis points below the growth in nominal GDP.

    Second, many analysts and portfolio managers still expect a return soon to the interest rate pattern of 2008 to 2020. Yet, that interest rate pattern was abnormal, as was the nominal growth path in the economy. Only once did nominal GDP grow more than 5% during those twelve years, which occurred in 2018. The average gain was about 4%.

    The interest rate pattern more applicable to the economy's current growth performance and policymakers' intent to lower inflation is from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. At the start of that period, the Fed funds rate, as did the 10-year Treasury yield, exceeded the Nominal GDP growth. Then, in the later part, nominal growth and nominal rates were more in line with one another.

    The longer it takes the Fed to adjust policy to the current growth dynamics, the longer it will be before the economy slows and market rates fall.

  • Critics argue that the current inflation rate is much lower than the published rate. That is true; based on the current methodology, "real-time" consumer inflation is less than the published rate. Thirty-five percent of the prices used to estimate the consumer price index are not for the current month but reflect the prices over several months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of that involves the owner's rent index. Because rents change infrequently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measures these service prices over six-month spans.

    The owner's rent index is the brainchild of government statisticians and academia, supported by politicians who want a lower, less volatile price index. Yet, the owner's rent index has two "major" problems.

    First, it is not a current price. Rent changes, up or down, would not be captured in the CPI until six months after they occurred. So, given its massive weight in the index, owners' rent would result in reported inflation running below current inflation at the beginning of the rent price cycle and overstate it at the end.

    Second, it is not an actual price. The owner's rent index is supposed to measure or capture inflation experienced by people who own a house. But no homeowner pays that price. Economists and policymakers often talk about demand destruction from higher inflation, but there is no demand destruction here since no one pays the price.

    A "real-time" and more accurate measure of inflation would require a shift back to the inflation methodology pre-1983. That would include house prices and mortgage rates, creating a real-time, more volatile, and higher published inflation rate. So pick your poison---a flawed index or a higher volatile index? Complaints about the current CPI are frequent, but they would only get louder if a shift to a real-time measure of inflation occurred.

  • Policymakers are learning in "real-time" the staying stimulative power of the Fed's quantitative securities purchases (QSP) and the scale of official interest rates required to neutralize its effects. How else can anyone explain 800,000 new jobs (60,000 in the interest-sensitive construction industry) created over the July-to-September period and estimated GDP growth of nearly 5% for Q3 after over 500 basis points in official rate hikes in the past 18 months?

    Former Fed Chair Ben Bernanke, the mastermind behind this new policy tool, argues that QSP helps to lower long-term yields, and the effects are long-lasting. How long? No one knows, but one way to track the QSP effect is by looking at the spread between long-term yields and Fed funds.

    The Fed has been raising the Fed funds rates since March 2022. For half of those 18 months, the yield of the 10-year Treasury has run well below the Fed funds rate and still is well below. During every Fed tightening cycle of the past 35 years, the 10-year Treasury yield ran equal to or slightly above the Fed funds rate, especially when the economy was strong, and the Fed still was leaning towards more rate hikes.

    Most of the focus of QSP is its direct impact on the Treasury yields. However, it also involves direct cash transfer (liquidity) into the financial markets and the economy as the Fed buys securities from investors. The Fed added $5 trillion to QSP over two years, which boosted asset prices and directly and indirectly consumer investment and spending behavior.

    Mr. Bernanke also argues that for QSP to be effective, the economy's nominal "neutral interest rate" (observed after the fact) must be between 2% and 3%. Suppose the "neutral interest rate" is twice that, or 5% to 6%, close to the current target on fed funds, and is rising as is the case nowadays.

    Does the stimulative power of QSP increase as the economy's nominal "neutral interest rate" increases, especially when the scale of QSP is still enormous? Mr. Bernanke never contemplated this scenario or how to exit QSP when policymakers needed to shift the stance of monetary policy to the restrictive side.

    We are in uncharted territory because never before has there been a period of a rise in the economy's nominal "neutral interest rate" and enormous QSP. At the end of September 2023, the Fed's security holdings stood at $7.44 trillion, roughly $1 trillion below its peak, but still stood nearly $ 4 trillion above the level when the Fed started its latest QSP program in 2020.

    Does the stimulative power of $4 trillion of QSP outweigh the adverse effects of an estimated $100 billion increase in household net interest costs? The economy's growth performance says it does, but financial conditions models say the opposite. Why? Financial conditions models omit QSP.

  • The August report on consumer prices shows that inflation cycles are not linear; inflation patterns rotate, and service sector inflation cycles are hard to break.

    In August, headline consumer prices rose 0.6%. That represented the most significant month-over-month increase since June 2022. Also, that broke a 13-month pattern of successively lower headline annual inflation readings, proving that inflation cycles are not linear, up or down.

    Second, commodity (or goods) prices rose 1% last month, which accounted for much of the acceleration in the headline. That was only the fourth time in the previous fourteen months that consumer commodity prices increased, illustrating that inflation patterns tend to rotate over time, with some items growing almost every month and others occasionally.

    Third, in August, consumer service prices rose 0.4% and 5.9% in the past twelve months. Since the mid-1980s, consumer services inflation cycles have reversed after the federal funds rate exceeded the inflation rate, sometimes substantially. Consumer service inflation is still above the current fed fund rate range of 5.25% to 5.5%. Several analysts argue that the Fed tightening cycle is over. The history "bookie" says the odds of another rate hike are higher than what analysts think.

  • Are we there yet? Incoming information on the economy tells policymakers they have not achieved economic conditions (below-trend growth and slack in the labor markets) to ensure inflation continues to slow. And that spells bad news for investors because policymakers have indicated that slowing inflation alone is not a sufficient reason to prevent additional rate hikes.

    At the July 25-26 FOMC meeting, policymakers stated that "a period of below-trend growth in real GDP and some softening in labor market conditions as needed to bring aggregate supply and aggregate demand into better balance and reduce inflation pressures sufficiently to return inflation to 2 percent over time."

    Tightness in labor markets has lessened somewhat, but a 3.5% jobless rate in July tells policymakers that they are far from a situation in which there is enough slack in labor markets to limit wage and price pressures.

    Yet, the economy's current growth performance is a more immediate concern to policymakers, especially after raising official rates over 500 basis points and expecting the lagged effects from higher rates to result in slower growth.

    GDPNow, published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta staff, offers a running assessment of current quarter GDP growth. The GDPNow model uses much of the same source data that BEA, the government agency responsible for estimating GDP. But GDPNow differs from the old GDP flash report, which BEA prepared because it does not use detailed or imputed data in the official estimates, so it can overstate and understate growth for any particular quarter. Nonetheless, it has credibility since a Federal Reserve Regional Bank published it.

    The latest estimate posted on August 16 shows Q3 GDP running at a 5.8% annualized rate, roughly three times above consensus estimates and far above what the Fed considers trend growth. The latest estimate only includes preliminary data for July, so two-thirds of Q3 economic activity is missing. Regardless of what's missing, it sends a message of strong and broad economic momentum in the early part of Q3.

    Even if the final Q3 growth number ends half as fast as the August 16 GDPNow estimate, it should tell policymakers the lagged effects of when rising official rates run below inflation are much less, or even non-existent, as when rising official rates are above inflation. And the current stance of monetary policy is even less restrictive than advertised, given the level of QE.

    So the level of official rates needed to slow the economy has yet to be reached, and whatever level policymakers or investors thought was appropriate should be raised by 100 basis points or more because of QE.

  • The July 12, 2023, WSJ article, " Measure It Differently, And Inflation Is Behind Us," triggered a lively debate on housing costs in the CPI. The WSJ article argues that "no one pays" the rent used to measure owners' housing costs, so it should be overlooked or ignored. No one liked the results when BLS included "actual" housing costs based on prices, so government statisticians, academics, and politicians collaborated to change it.

    So what is best, a CPI with no price for housing costs, a "fake" price, or an "actual" price? The answer is more than academic, as it will have significant implications for monetary policy and how the business cycle runs and ends.

    The main opposition to including the price of a house in the CPI stems from the view that housing is an investment item, disqualifying it from inclusion in the consumer price index. Yet, the CPI has other investment items (e.g., watches, jewelry, etc.). But since the weight of those items is small, their inclusion is not controversial. So is the housing issue, the investment angle, or the weight in the index? It appears to be the latter, as "consistency" in measurement takes a back seat.

    Critics also argue that people borrow money to purchase a house. So if the cost of a home, including financing costs, increases every time the Fed raises rates, housing inflation would rise, forcing the Fed to raise rates again and again. People borrow money and finance (credit cards, auto loans, etc. ) every good and service in the CPI, and these financing charges have significantly increased since the Fed raised the official rate. So why should housing financing be treated differently?

    A consumer price index, including house prices, does not necessarily mean a higher consumer price index. The consumer price index will yield the same result if house price increases match other items' average growth. Only if house price increases were significant and persistent would there be an impact on the CPI.

    The CPI, the government now publishes, has increasingly been enmeshed in the politics of the numbers. Printing a lower CPI than a higher one is more politically acceptable, even if that means including "fake" or "inaccurate" prices over actual prices.

    With house prices living outside the standard price index nowadays, it is impossible to ascertain the aggregate actual inflation rate in the economy. That makes the Fed's job on price stability more complicated. That's because setting rates for a price index without housing risks the real cost of credit too low for real estate. Fifty years ago, Professors Alchian and Klein authored a paper, "On a Correct Measure of Inflation, stating " a price index used to measure inflation must include asset prices." Their analysis and conclusion are still valid today.

  • The construction of the leading indicators has many flaws, but one of the more visible and bigger ones is the three series for new manufacturing orders. The leading index includes two dollar-based new orders series and one diffusion measure. A diffusion measure captures the breath of change, not the magnitude of change. In other words, it does not distinguish between the size of the gain or decline. Yet, dollar-based series are more important in determining economic growth since the economy runs on dollars spent.

    In May, the leading index fell 0.7%. The ISM new orders index posted the most significant decline (1.4%) of any indicator, overwhelming the small gain in the other two order series (0.1% and 0.2%, respectively).

    Today, the Census Bureau reported that new orders for durable goods, a dollar-based series, rose 1.8% in May. And excluding the volatile transportation sector, new orders rose 0.6%. The latest data will result in an upward revision to the dollar-based series in the leading index, but not enough to wipe out the negative contribution of the ISM New orders index.

    How can anyone trust the signal from the index of leading indicators when the dollar-based new orders for durable manufactured goods (excluding transportation) posted in May, their most significant gain in over a year, and yet the sum of the three orders series in the leading index is negative because of a sharp decline in diffusion-based series? The economy runs on dollars.

  • A research paper by the staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (1993) claims that the composite index of leading economic indicators does not provide "reliable advance information on the direction of the economy." Other studies have found that nearly half of the cyclical peak predictions in composite indexes of leading indicators were false signals.

    The key takeaway from these studies, and others, is that the forecasting record of the composite index of cyclical indicators is not 100% accurate because the group of leading indicators that accurately predicted one cycle might not work in the next. In other words, as the economy moves from one business cycle to the next, the economy changes, as does the policy structure, and some indicators become obsolete and less reliable while others gain more predictive power.

    Forty percent of the economic series that comprised the leading index in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Dallas Fed paper was researched, are no longer included. Change is a recurring feature of the leading economic indicators. In the 2000s, a new way of measuring the Treasury yield curve became part of the index. After the financial crisis of 2007-09, the redesigned leading economic index included a leading credit series and the ISM new orders series, removing broad money and vendor performance.

    It's too early to conclude confidently that the current composite index of leading indicators sends accurate or false signals. But the performance of several indicators needs to be examined to avoid a wrong prediction.

    For example, the current leading indicators index includes three new manufacturing order series. That construction is not ideal as it is best to have indicators covering a wide range of activities and sectors to avoid the intercorrelation between economic indicators.

    Also, the current economic cycle has had unique features for the goods sector. Once the economy re-opened following the closures of businesses during the pandemic, there was a record surge in demand, especially for goods, driven by pent-up demand and unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus. Yet, firms could only respond slowly due to part shortages and supply chain bottlenecks. That forced firms to double and even triple ordering, resulting in the most significant (record) gains for manufactured consumer goods and capital goods (excluding aircraft). Now that the "ordering binge" has ended, the new orders series have reversed, especially for consumer goods posting monthly declines in five out of the past six months. That has contributed to the leading index's monthly decreases.

    Yet, is removing "double-ordering" a sign of economic weakness or a technical adjustment in the orders series? New orders for consumer goods are off their record highs but remain elevated and stand 25% above pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, new orders for capital goods (ex-aircraft) were at record highs in April. It's worth noting that unfilled orders, an indicator in an earlier version of the composite index of leading indicators, stands at a record high. New and unfilled orders raise questions about whether the economy is transitioning to a slower growth environment or an outright recession.

    Another questionable component of the current leading index is the yield curve, or the spread between the yield on the 10-year Treasury and the federal funds rate. The yield curve series was included in the leading index in the mid-2000s. But that was before the Fed embarked on quantitative easing (QE) or the purchase of long-date securities with the primary intent of keeping long bond yields lower than what otherwise would be the case.

    The current inversion of the yield curve is the widest on record, negatively impacting the composite index of leading indicators. It defies logic to think that the yield curve offers similar (leading) signals when the Fed buys securities and when the Fed does not. The Fed doubled its balance sheet to over $ 8 trillion during the past three years. The yield curve was added to the composite leading index in the mid-2000s, and the Fed balance was pretty steady at $750 billion, less than one-tenth of its current size.

    With QE as a new policy tool, comparing long bond yields to inflation makes more sense as it is a proxy for real interest rates and captures the intent of QE (i.e., keeping the long-term borrowing cost low). Replacing the yield curve with a proxy for real interest rates would dramatically alter the pattern of the composite of leading indicators.

    One cannot use Paul Samuleson's comparison of the stock market in predicting "nine out of the past five recessions" with the track record of the composite index of leading indicators because if the current composition of the index does not accurately predict business cyclical turning points, it will be refitted or redesigned with a group of indicators that does. Unfortunately, that does not offer any hope for investors because people make decisions in "real-time" and can't wait for data revisions or a new index. History painfully shows that using one set of cyclical indicators to predict the future is fraught with failure. That's not a criticism of using leading indicators to help predict cyclical turning points. Still, things are constantly changing in the economy, requiring more than a small set of indicators to predict the future.