Economists have said many times since the 2008 financial crisis that the recovery will be a long time coming and that it will be hard. So far, optimistic signs have predominated during the first half of a given year, followed by reasons for pessimism about the U.S. economy.
The latest monthly barometer from the National Association of Credit Management (NACM) reinforces that fact, dipping in April for the first time in five months to 55.1 compared with 56.2 in March.
The trade association surveys about 900 credit managers each month on a range of favorable and unfavorable factors. In its report released today, the NACM said “the robust growth that started the year has faded somewhat, provoking concerns that the economy will start to retreat for the third time in as many years.”
Partly feeding the concern is a slowdown in payments between companies, which is one of the first signs of a downturn, according to Chris Kuehl, an economist for the NACM. For the most part, he says, companies are acting cautiously by putting some of their late-paying customers on their watch lists. But they’re not yet turning away customers because of slowed collections.
The latest index shows most favorable factors have taken a dip. Besides a decrease in collections, sales and new credit applications also fell in April compared with March. There is, however, one positive sign: the amount of credit companies are willing to extend has increased.
But when taken as a whole, the NACM’s index shows little change compared with last April, when the barometer hit 55.8. That reading came amid events that had significant effects on corporate supply chains, such as the Japanese earthquake and the Arab Spring.
Conversely, while oil prices have risen recently, companies in general — outside of those that are heavily reliant on European sales — are not dealing with large global disruptions at the moment. Thus, “if we do slip [later this spring], it probably will not be as dramatic as last year and probably will not be as down as last summer,” says Kuehl.
For CFOs trying to move their businesses forward, their interpretation of the latest credit data will depend on their industry, Kuehl says. The energy, agricultural, and heath-care sectors, for example, are doing well enough that negative economic factors shouldn’t stop executives there from taking on new projects or investments.