Monthly Economic Reports

The Employment Report

  • Importance (A-F): This release merits an A.
  • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Release Time: First Friday of the month at 8:30 ET for the prior month

The employment report is actually two separate reports which are the results of two separate surveys. The household survey is a survey of roughly 60,000 households. This survey produces the unemployment rate. The establishment survey is a survey of 375,000 businesses. This survey produces the non-farm payrolls, average workweek, and average hourly earnings figures, to name a few. Both surveys cover the payroll period which includes the 12th of each month.

The reports both measure employment levels, just from different angles. Due to the vastly different size of the survey samples (the establishment survey not only surveys more businesses, but each business employs many individuals), the measures of employment may differ markedly from month to month. The household survey is used only for the unemployment measure - the market focuses primarily on the more comprehensive establishment survey. Together, these two surveys make up the employment report, the most timely and broad indicator of economic activity released each month.

Total payrolls are broken down into sectors such as manufacturing, mining, construction, services, and government. The markets follow these components closely as indicators of the trends in sectors of the economy; the manufacturing sector is watched the most closely as it often leads the business cycle. The data also include breakdowns of hours worked, overtime, and average hourly earnings.

The average workweek (also known as hours worked) is important for two reasons. First, it is a critical determinant of such monthly indicators as industrial production and personal income. Second, it is considered a useful indicator of labor market conditions: a rising workweek early in the business cycle may be the first indication that employers are preparing to boost their payrolls, while late in the cycle a rising workweek may indicate that employers are having difficulty finding qualified applicants for open positions. Average earnings are closely followed as an indicator of potential inflation. Like the price of any good or service, the price of labor reacts to an overly accommodative monetary policy. If the price of labor is rising sharply, it may be an indication that too much money is chasing too few goods, or in this case employees.

Retail Sales

  • Importance (A-F): This release merits an A-.
  • Source: The Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce.
  • Release Time: 8:30 ET around the 13th of the month (data for one month prior).

The retail sales report is a measure of the total receipts of retail stores. The changes in retail sales are widely followed as the timeliest indicator of broad consumer spending patterns. Retail sales are often viewed ex-autos, as auto sales can move sharply from month-to-month. It is also important to keep an eye on the gas and food components, where changes in sales are often a result of price changes rather than shifting consumer demand.

Retail sales can be quite volatile and the advance reports are subject to rather large revisions. Retail sales do not include spending on services, which makes up over half of total consumption. Total personal consumption is not available until the personal income and consumption reports are released, typically two weeks after retail sales.

PPI: Producer Price Index

  • Importance (A-C): This release merits a B-.
  • Source: Bureau of Labor statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Release Time: Around the 11th of each month at 8:30 ET for the prior month.

The Producer Price Index measures prices of goods at the wholesale level. There are three broad subcategories within PPI: crude, intermediate, and finished. The market tracks the finished goods index most closely, as it represents prices for goods that are ready for sale to the end user. Goods prices at the crude and intermediate stages of production often provide an indication of coming disinflation pressures, but the closer you get to crude goods, the more that these prices track commodity prices which are already available in traded indexes such as the CRB (Commodity Research Bureau).

At all stages of production; the market places more emphasis on the index, excluding food and energy, referred to as the core rate. Food and energy prices tend to be quite volatile and obscure trends in the underlying inflation rate. Though the market reaction is determined by the month/month changes, year/year changes are also noted by analysts. The index is not revised on a monthly basis, but annual revisions to seasonal adjustment factors can produce small adjustments to past releases.

Industrial Production

  • Importance (A-F): This release merits a B-.
  • Source: Federal Reserve.
  • Release Time: 9:15 ET around the 15th of the month (data for month prior).

The index of Industrial Production is a fixed-weight measure of the physical output of the nation's factories, mines, and utilities. Manufacturing production, the largest component of the total, can be accurately predicted using total manufacturing hours worked from the employment report. One of the bigger wildcards in this report is utility production, which can be quite volatile due to swings in the weather. Severe hot or cold spells can boost production as increased heating/cooling needs drive utility production up.

In addition to production, this monthly report also provides a measure of capacity utilization. Though the rate of capacity utilization is seen as a critical gauge of the slack available in the economy, the market does not completely trust this measure. Capacity is very difficult to measure, and the Fed essentially assumes that growth in capacity in any given year follows a straight line. One can therefore predict the capacity utilization rate quite accurately based on the assumption for production growth. The 85% mark is seen as a key barrier over which inflationary pressures are generated, but given revisions to these data and the difficulties with capacity measurement, the 85% mark should be viewed cautiously. It would be appropriate to look for corroborating inflation indications from commodity prices and vendor deliveries.

Housing Starts and Building Permits

  • Importance (A-F): This release merits a B-.
  • : The Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce.
  • Release Time: 8:30 ET around the 16th of the month (data for one month prior).

Housing Starts are a measure of the number of residential units on which construction is begun each month. A start in construction is defined as the beginning of excavation of the foundation for the building and is comprised primarily of residential housing. Building permits are permits taken out in order to allow excavation. An increase in building permits and starts usually occurs a few months after a reduction in mortgage rates. Permits lead starts, but permits are not required in all regions of the country, and the level of permits therefore tends to be less than the level of starts over time.

The monthly national report is broken down by region: Northeast, Midwest, South, and West. Briefing recommends analyzing the regional data because they are subject to a high degree of volatility. The high volatility can be attributed to weather changes and/or natural disasters. For example, an unexpectedly high level of rain in South could delay housing starts for the region.

Existing Home Sales

The name speaks for itself - this report provides a measure of the level of sales of existing home sales. The report is considered a decent indicator of activity in the housing sector. Housing starts precede this report each month, but starts are a supply rather than demand-side indicator. Existing home sales precede the other key demand-side indicator of housing - new home sales - thus boosting the visibility of this report. Sales are highly dependent on mortgage rates, and will tend to react with a few months lag to changes in rates. Sales are also determined by the level of pent-up demand for housing - immediately after a recession; sales are typically quite strong due to the demand which accumulated through the recession.

The survey sample for existing home sales is larger than that of new home sales, making it somewhat less susceptible to large revisions. Both reports can see huge month-to-month swings in winter, when bad weather can significantly affect sales.

Durable Goods Orders

  • Importance (A-F): This release merits a B.
  • Source: The Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce.
  • Release Time: 8:30 ET around the 26th of the month (data for month prior).

The durable orders release measures the dollar volume of orders, shipments, and unfilled orders of durable goods (defined as goods whose intended lifespan is three years or more). Orders are considered a leading indicator of manufacturing activity, and the market often moves on this report despite the volatility and large revisions that make it a less than perfect indicator. These problems can be minimized by looking at the breakdown of orders. The total number is often skewed by huge increases in aircraft and defense orders. An increase based solely on strength in one sector tends to be discounted, while the market is more impressed with broad based increases in orders.

Also notable in this report is the narrow category of non-defense capital goods. These goods mirror the GDP category producers' durable equipment (PDE) -- the largest component of business investment. Shipments of non-defense capital goods are a good proxy for PDE in the current quarter, while non-defense capital goods orders provide an indication of PDE growth in the quarters ahead.

Consumer Confidence

  • Importance (A-F): This release merits a B-.
  • Source: The Conference Board.
  • Release Time: 10:00 ET on the last Tuesday of the month (data for current month).
  • Raw Data Available At: http://www.tcb-indicators.org/.

The Conference Board conducts a monthly survey of 5000 households to ascertain the level of consumer confidence. The report can occasionally be helpful in predicting sudden shifts in consumption patterns, though most small changes in the index are just noise. Only index changes of at least five points should be considered significant. The index consists of two sub-indexes - consumers' appraisal of current conditions and their expectations for the future. Expectations make up 60% of the total index, with current conditions accounting for the other 40%. The expectations index is typically seen as having better leading indicator qualities than the current conditions index.

University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index

  • Importance (A-F): This release merits a B-.
  • Source: The University of Michigan.
  • Release Time: Preliminary: 10:00 ET on the second Friday of the month (data for current month); Final: 10:00 ET on the fourth Friday of the month (data for current month).

The Michigan index is almost identical to the Conference Board index, though there are two monthly releases, a preliminary and final reading. Like the Conference Board index, it has two sub-indexes - expectations and current conditions. The expectations index is a component of the Conference Board's Leading Indicators index.

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