CMI Numbers Continue to Slip, but There Are Silver Linings

The Credit Managers’ Index (CMI) for August hasn’t been this low in more than a year—falling from July’s 53.9 to 52.7—and is now tracking at levels last seen in 2008–2009. “The news this month is not good and comes as no shock to anyone who has been tracking the data coming from all directions,” said Chris Kuehl, PhD, economist for the National Association of Credit Management (NACM). If there is any good news, it is that the combined number has not yet fallen below 50, the threshold separating contraction from expansion. But the index of unfavorable factors fell to contractionary levels. The last time the unfavorable index was this low was in the 2009 period when the recession had just started to show signs of easing. The fact that the data was not worse this month than it was is probably worth noting as most of the other indices released in the last few weeks suggested there might have been an even steeper decline.

Kuehl said the best news in this month’s data is found in the favorable index. Here the data barely changed, going from 58.9 to 58.1. This is still much lower than most of the last year, but the precipitous collapse that took place in the companion part of the overall index did not take place here. There was even some improvement in the amount of dollar collections, while declines in the sales category were slight, from 60 to 59.2. “The most interesting aspect of the data is that extension of credit actually improved in the middle of all this gloom and doom. The fact that favorable factors have improved slightly or remained stable provides some hope that conditions will improve in the coming months,” said Kuehl. “There is still demand and business progress, but the crisis in the overall economy has been putting pressure on the finances of many companies.”

Upon examining the unfavorable factors, it is striking that the problem is primarily one of sudden business stress and failure. The biggest declines were in accounts placed for collection and dollar amounts beyond terms. These are signs of real distress among customers, but it is equally significant that filings for bankruptcies did not increase dramatically and there was not an acceleration in the rejection of credit applications. The divergence in these factors is particularly interesting and informative. While speculative, one could look at this data and conclude that companies got in trouble in the last month or so because of a sudden drop in business after anticipating better times. Evidence from earlier in the year showed that companies across the board were anticipating better days in the second half of the year and many were trying to prepare for this with expansion plans. This anticipated economic growth did not come to pass and these companies swiftly got into trouble.

If there is a small silver lining to all this, it is that the level of bankruptcies has not risen at the same pace. That means one of two things. If the economy gets back in gear in the next couple of months, companies struggling now will have some time to gain control of their budgets and be able to avoid sliding further toward collapse and ultimately bankruptcy. If the economy doesn’t catch fire to some extent in the near future, the bankruptcy rate will start to climb and the index will reflect it. The other mildly encouraging piece is that the rate of rejection for credit applications was not markedly different from last month. There is still credit available to customers that are bucking the trend. This is not like the situation at the end of 2008 when the entire credit system came screeching to a halt and even the best of companies were denied access.

The data this month is mixed but with a decidedly downward slope. The CMI remains in expansion territory, but is holding on to that status by a thread. There may be another month of essentially flat growth in store, but after that the economy will begin to tilt in one direction or another. If there is no real improvement in some of the fundamentals, the index will reflect continued deterioration. There is some resilience evident in the index numbers as the favorable categories are holding their own. The sectors that will drag the whole index further under include those that are most dependent on the decisions that companies made when they were expecting some solid economic growth by now. The credit requested made sense at the time, but now there is some serious concern as far as what happens next if the growth rate remains mired in the predicted 1% to 1.5% region.

Brian Shappell, NACM staff writer