Two narratives dominated last week’s economic discussion. First, as the Beige Book from the Federal Reserve Board stated, the economy “continued to increase at a modest to moderate pace in January and early February.” In his congressional testimony, Chairman Ben Bernanke was also quick to cite the important role that manufacturing has played in the recent rebound, with higher levels of activity reported in most areas of the country. Indeed, regional surveys from the Dallas and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks observed greater production activity and increased optimism for the next six months.
This upbeat assessment is shared by business economists at the National Association for Business Economics, who see a stronger outlook. Their consensus estimates for real GDP growth for this year and next are 2.4 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively. Adding to this sentiment, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) revised its estimates for fourth quarter 2011 growth up from 2.8 percent to 3 percent, led by increased consumer spending and business inventory accumulation. BEA also reported modest growth in personal income and spending for January, with strong gains in durable goods purchasing. Consumers, too, are more confident, according to the Conference Board, with their sentiments about the current and future economy at their highest level since this time last year.
In contrast to the more positive tone of many of these studies, the second narrative of last week focused on a series of indicators that unexpectedly declined. Most of us were anticipating growth for the Institute for Supply Management’s purchasing managers index, but it declined from 54.1 in January to 52.4 in February. This was led by a slower pace of growth for new orders, with production and employment also easing. Likewise, the Census Bureau reported reduced durable goods orders and construction spending in January.
In each of these cases, the longer-term trend remains a positive one and is in line with the first narrative. November and December figures were sharply higher, and so it might be expected to have some easing afterwards. Growth should resume in the coming months, especially as industrial production should grow around 4 percent this year. Even with that said, it is also clear that manufacturers are closely watching the events of Europe, once-again resurgent energy and raw material prices, and policy actions stemming from Washington. They remain cautious that one of these headwinds might derail growth, even with higher optimism overall.
This week, everyone will be focused on Friday’s jobs numbers. With 82,000 net new jobs created in the past two months, I anticipate continued improvements in employment for the sector, but perhaps not as large as were seen in November and December. Other key indicators of note include the release of revised productivity data on Wednesday and international trade findings on Friday.
Chad Moutray is chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.