February CMI Makes Small But Anticipated Gains After Big January

The growth manifested in January has been interrupted. However, the drop in activity in February was not enough to plunge the Credit Managers’ Index (CMI) back into negative territory. In fact, a marginal gain moved the combined index from 55.1 to 55.2 and was somewhat anticipated due to the inspiring recent expansion in the manufacturing sector. Still, it feels more like a decline when compared to the big gains made in January.

“Starting in the latter part of 2009, manufacturing sector businesses began rebuilding inventories back to respectable levels; a process the CMI predicted,” said Chris Kuehl, Ph.D., economist for the National Association of Credit Management, which issues the CMI report each month. During the depths of this recession, most businesses did everything possible to reduce costs and protect cash flow. For several months, the CMI illustrated this point with reports of worsening unfavorable factors: more disputes, rejections of credit applications and dollars beyond terms. By the end of 2009, the CMI began to show a shift—businesses that owed money started the process of paying down debt in anticipation of needing access to credit in the near future. This shift in attitude has historically shown that expansion begins within a month or two, which is what started to transpire in December 2009 and January of this year.

“The development in manufacturing was matched to a lesser extent by similar movement in the service sector, and other economic indicators added to the notion that something was stirring in the economy,” said Kuehl. Fourth quarter GDP numbers for 2009 were up 5.9%, and the Purchasing Managers Index climbed to the mid-50s with new orders all the way up to the mid-60s. “There now appears to be a reversal under way, but it may be more accurate to refer to this as a breather,” Kuehl said.

“The first phase in an economic recovery is the replenishment of reduced inventory and there can’t be growth without the supply to meet expected demand,” said Kuehl. “If there had been no effort to bolster inventory levels, the arrival of demand would have provoked massive shortages, bottlenecks and ultimately inflation. For now, businesses are looking at low interest rates, commodity prices and labor costs. This is the safest time to build that base, but now they have to wait for the second phase—consumer confidence, which remains in the doldrums to an extent.”

Conference Board reports show a big drop in consumer confidence because of concerns about the employment situation. At the same time, there are reports coming in from big retailers such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot suggesting that consumers are shopping again. The consumer has yet to commit and until that happens, the economy remains in a waiting position.

The CMI shows that sales were flat in February after a major jump in January, but slight increases in new credit applications and the amount of credit extended indicate that credit remains somewhat accessible. Among the negative factors, the biggest changes took place in disputes and bankruptcies. Neither was unexpected: more companies are struggling with debt and will be maneuvering for more time, and the end of a recession is often harder on companies than the recession itself as they start to see pressure from competitors and may not have the ability to respond.

Special CMA Note: Dr. Chris Kuehl, quoted in this press release, will be the keynote speaker at CMA’s Annual Meeting April 14, 2010 in Montebello, CA. Click here for more info.

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