This month’s news is not so positive as recent world events are rippling through the U.S. economy. For the past several months there had been a consistent feeling of optimism — despite some struggling in the manufacturing sector based on solid sales — and the seeming willingness to increase trade credit. That optimism took a hit this month. There were sharp declines in sales, new credit applications, dollar collections and the amount of credit extended — all the positive factors. The overall favorable index dropped from 64.1 to 62.2. “This is not exactly catastrophic as the index remains in the 60s,” said Chris Kuehl, PhD, managing director of Armada Corporate Intelligence and economic advisor for the National Association of Credit Management, “but the pace has dramatically slowed and that is hardly what had been anticipated or hoped for.”
There were continued signs of distress in the unfavorable factors, but the decline slowed and that is somewhat better news. The overall sense of the March data is that the U.S. economy is struggling to keep pace with the events in the world that have drastically altered everything from commodity price expectations to sourcing decisions and credit allocation. “It is important to note that the ripple effects of the events in the Middle East and Japan have only started to manifest and will be factors for months to come,” said Kuehl. “The Japanese catastrophe has affected supply chains all over the U.S. and Europe and that has added considerable expense to manufacturers being forced to find new suppliers or wait for weeks to get what they need from the affected region.” The price per barrel of oil has jumped by almost $15 since December and that is now filtering into all sectors of the economy.
The most dramatic change in the CMI data is in the category of dollar collections. The combined index slipped back to levels not seen since November of last year, falling -0.7 from 56.4 to 55.7. All of the gains made in the favorable categories in February have been reversed as the index numbers are now back to where they were at the end of last year. Kuehl noted that the real damage here is not that the index numbers are drastically reduced — they are still holding fast in the 60s and upper 50s. The real problem is that expectations had been high and it was anticipated that these numbers would be well into the mid-60 level by now. There had been some expectation that gains would be placing these index numbers into the 70s by mid-summer, but that is no longer the most likely scenario. The gains seem to have stalled for the moment, and it is not likely they will start up again as long as the global situation remains fundamentally unpredictable.
When one looks at the unfavorable factors there is still cause to worry and there will be more concerns as prices start to escalate. The rise in oil prices has been sharp, but this is not the only sector seeing increases. The radical price hikes of all industrial metals and food inflation are as bad as they have been since the debacle in 2008 and are now moving through the economy: high oil prices have prompted higher airfares and freight rates. As businesses face these hikes, they are forced to spend more than anticipated and that puts a strain on their ability to keep pace with the other debts they owe. Many of the companies reporting on their creditors suggest that a key reason for the slowdown in payment has been the spike in operating costs.
If there is any good news in the data for this month it is that the index of unfavorable factors has not changed much as compared to the favorable factors. The negative news is the same as last month, suggesting that some concerns about credit collapse have been reduced. There were fewer bankruptcies in this period and that is good news. The other factors worsened a little, but not dramatically. “The anecdotal evidence suggests that most creditors are reacting to some short-term shocks but expect to be back to normal in the months to come — providing that the situation in the Middle East does not worsen appreciably,” said Kuehl.