The bottom seemed to drop out of the economic recovery in May. The first signs of trouble started to manifest in the April, but by the end of May these threats had become very real and the economy took some steps backwards. The Credit Managers’ Index (CMI) data in April had hinted at the problems with declining numbers in areas like sales, credit extension and dollars beyond terms, but by May these areas and others showed definite strain. “The momentum of the economic rebound has been reversed for the time being and for reasons that should not come as a shock to many,” said Chris Kuehl, PhD, managing director of Armada Corporate Intelligence and National Association of Credit Management economic advisor.
The biggest drop in May was in sales. The 59.4 reading is the lowest since September 2010, and this decline was felt in both the manufacturing and service sectors. There is widespread concern that the consumer was retreating from spending again as retail numbers in general have been tepid. The only reason for an increase in retail activity is due to the hike in gas and food prices. These have forced more spending on the part of the consumer, but this spending has come at the expense of almost every category of retail.
“The CMI data reflects the decline in demand at the manufacturing and wholesale level, and it is very likely that consumer retail numbers will dip correspondingly in June,” said Kuehl. “The CMI data generally presages activity in the consumer sector as it reflects the activity in the commercial sector.”
There are other trouble areas showing up in the data this month. Dollar collections dropped to a level last seen in August 2010 as many companies found themselves in trouble as they were forced to start contending with inflation even as their business opportunities remain limited. This started to show up in April and has since accelerated. As companies start to exit the recession, they often face some severe competitive pressure, as there is nearly always a market leader ready to put pressure on a given industry. As the market leader starts to become aggressive and goes after market share, other competitors in that sector have to keep pace—even if they are not ready. They start to spend more despite limited resources as they fear losing their market position. Add in an inflation surge and there will be some real consequences. Within a very short period of time there will be cash flow challenges unless the expected demand manifests—and as has been pretty obvious that demand has yet to manifest. The inflation that is complicating the financial situation for companies is also hitting the consumer and having a negative impact.
The index of favorable factors had been as high as 64.1 just three months ago in February. Now that index has fallen to levels not seen since October of last year. The index shows that there is still some growth in terms of credit applications and that bodes well for the future assuming that conditions improve and the rate of approvals starts to grow again. Right now there is still a sense that conditions will improve as the threat of inflation fades, but if the threat continues to advance there is likely to be another wave of negative responses.
“The most dramatic changes in the overall index represent an early warning of some bad times ahead if conditions do not improve on the inflation and growth fronts,” said Kuehl. As recently as January all index categories were above 50 and that suggests expansion. Today, there are three important categories that have slipped into the 40s and that creates concern. The biggest drop was in dollars beyond terms—a slide from 50.7 to 46.5. Overall, the combined index fell 1.6%, from 55.8 to 54.2. Many companies are having problems staying current as the costs of inputs rise while their markets remain moribund. Kuehl said that, thus far, there has been little increase in areas like disputes, accounts out for collection and bankruptcies, but if the past is any pattern these areas will reflect the strain in the months to come as business customers continue to grapple with cash flow.
The inflation hike is not solely responsible for the problems manifesting in May, but it is playing a significant role for sure. The plain fact is that most businesses have not seen a return of previous demand as yet and that leaves them very vulnerable to higher costs. The big hike in gas pricing has worked its way through the economy and will be having an impact for the next few months and beyond if its march upward resumes.
The online CMI report for May 2011 contains the full commentary, complete with tables and graphs. CMI archives may also be viewed online.