‘Wait and See’ Approach Persists for Third Month in July CMI

The best that can be said about this month’s Credit Managers’ Index (CMI) is that things did not get appreciably worse. The latest data suggest a third month of slump, and it appears the economy is languishing in a state that is not quite in crisis but which isn’t showing energy either. For the third month in a row, the overall index was slightly over 54. The fact that it went up by .4 is nothing much to cheer, as the overall index had been over 55 for the six months prior to May’s slip. “If there is anything to be somewhat encouraged by it is that manufacturing improved over the really down month last July, but at the same time there was weakness in the service sector that didn’t appear the previous month,” said Chris Kuehl, PhD, managing director of Armada Corporate Intelligence and economic advisor to the National Association of Credit Management (NACM).

Very little changed as far as favorable factors were concerned. Sales were essentially flat at 60—slightly down from 60.8—but that is a pretty solid sign given the declines noted in other areas. “It appears sales numbers have started to stabilize and are not that far from the highs reached a few months ago when they crested at 66.3,” said Kuehl. The biggest decline was in dollar collections—from 58.1 to 56.2. There have been other signs that collection activity has been slowing, which is consistent with the overall assessments of the economy of late.

“In comparing the CMI readings to other indices, it is apparent the economy has still not committed to either continued growth or a real decline,” said Kuehl. “There have been some positive signs from the latest set of leading economic indicators released from the Conference Board, but there have also been renewed signs of distress as far as consumer confidence is concerned. Not surprisingly there is a sense that much has stalled in the economy as uncertainty has been the rule of the day.”

Unfavorable factors don’t show signs of increased stress and there isn’t a lot to suggest much panic—at least not yet. There was a pretty solid improvement—from 50 to 55.6—in the dollar amount of customer deductions. This was accompanied by modest improvements in the number of rejected credit applications, which improved from 50.9 to 51. There was also improvement in the number of disputes, from 49.3 to 50. “These are not major shifts by any stretch of the imagination, but at least they are not trending downward any further,” said Kuehl.

The overall index barely changed and the manufacturing and service sectors have simply swapped positions again as far as stress is concerned. The CMI numbers for the last three months show a general slowdown in business activity. There has been a slump in sales, a reduction in the number of new credit applications and a slowdown in the collection process. The economy is essentially stalled and the question is whether this is a reaction to something short term or a reflection of some greater underlying trend. The CMI data hint that the situation is temporary and related to uncertain factors gripping the economy. Much of this information is more anecdotal than anything that can be pinned onto hard data. The majority of the information from the banking sector suggests there is money to borrow. There is available trade credit according to most sources. Businesses are sitting on more cash than they have in a long time and most companies are not having issues paying their bills. The problem is that almost everybody is worried about contingency plans and are sitting back as they wait for something to change.

The demand needed is not there yet and nobody is quite sure why. The jobless situation is certainly a worry, but the fact is that 91% of the workforce is employed. They are nervous about spending and as long as they stay on the sidelines, the manufacturing community does as well. “There are few in the mood to leverage themselves until they have a better sense of what to expect from the government and from the economy as a whole. Everything is more or less in place for expansion, but there has been no trigger thus far and there is plenty to make people more nervous about the future,” said Kuehl.

Jacob Barron, NACM staff writer