The Philly Fed's Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey is a monthly report for the Third Federal Reserve District, covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware. While it focuses exclusively on business in this district, this regional survey gives a generally reliable clue as to the direction of the broader Chicago Fed's National Activity Index.

The latest Manufacturing Index came in at 50.2, up 7.5 from last month's 44.5. The 3-month moving average came in at 41.1, up from 38.4 last month. Since this is a diffusion index, negative readings indicate contraction, positive ones indicate expansion. The Six-Month Outlook came in at 66.6, up 7.5 from the previous month's 59.1.

The 50.2 headline number came in above the 42 forecast at Investing.com.

Here is the introduction from the survey:

Manufacturing conditions in the region strengthened further this month, according to firms responding to the March Manufacturing Business Outlook Survey. The indicators for general activity and new orders rose sharply, and the shipments and employment indexes also increased. Price pressures also rose, according to the surveyed firms. All of the survey’s indexes for future conditions increased, as the firms indicated more widespread optimism about growth over the next six months. (Full Report)

The first chart below gives us a look at this diffusion index since 2000, which shows us how it has behaved in proximity to the two 21st century recessions. The red dots show the indicator itself, which is quite noisy, and the 3-month moving average, which is more useful as an indicator of coincident economic activity. We can see periods of contraction in 2011, 2012, and 2015, and a shallower contraction in 2013. The contraction due to COVID-19 is clear in 2020.

In the next chart, we see the complete series, which dates from May 1960. For proof of the high volatility of the headline indicator, note that the average absolute monthly change across this data series is 7.9.

The next chart is an overlay of the General Activity Index and the Future General Activity Index — the outlook six months ahead.