Here is the summary of this week’s Monday Economic Report:
The Federal Reserve Board’s Beige Book, released last week, noted some improvements in the economy since last month. The United States is growing modestly, and inflation appears to be in-check, at least for now. This latter point was also confirmed in the most recent price data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, the Beige Book also cited weaknesses in the manufacturing sector in many of its districts, with activity mixed and firms hesitant to hire. In fact, the labor market description showed the softer manufacturing market:
The Boston, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City and San Francisco Districts all reported delayed hiring, often in defense manufacturing, due to fiscal cliff uncertainties. Companies in the Chicago District with trade or investment exposures to Europe reduced their hiring plans as well. Chicago reported that manufacturers are choosing to cut hours instead of reducing headcount in expectation of production rebounds in 2013. Atlanta and Kansas City cited health-care policy changes and costs as another cause for minimal hiring. On the other hand, the New York, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Dallas Districts saw the labor market firming modestly. Finally, contacts in several districts reported difficulties finding qualified workers in some specialized fields, such as skilled manufacturing, energy and IT.
Many other data points out last week tended to echo these weaknesses. Both the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks found contracting sales, inventories and employment levels in their respective districts. The Philly survey cited slower sales growth, the desire to keep costs low and uncertainties related to health care and the U.S. fiscal situation as the top reasons why manufacturers were holding back on hiring. Despite this, manufacturing production increased 0.8 percent in December, building on November’s 0.6 percent gain. Hurricane Sandy might explain part of this increase, but modest consumer spending growth was probably also a factor. Retail sales rose 0.5 percent for the month and 4.7 percent for the year. Still, even with these gains, manufacturing production was much slower in the second half of the year compared to the first half.
The residential construction sector continues to be a bright spot, with housing starts soaring to 954,000 at the annual rate in December. This represents a 36.9 percent increase year-over-year and is a clear indication that housing is recovering. Freddie Mac reported that the average 30-year mortgage rate fell to 3.38 percent—a major contributor to the recent progress in the residential market—and home builder confidence continued to grow throughout the year. I expect for housing starts to exceed 1 million units by year’s end—a major accomplishment, even as it remains well below the 2.1 million homes built in 2005 and 2006. Despite this upward movement, challenges remain, especially regarding tougher lending standards and persistent financial challenges for would-be buyers.
This week, we will learn more about the domestic and global manufacturing situation. Surveys from the Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks will build on their mixed findings in December. Last month, the Kansas City District had declining activity for the third straight month, whereas the Richmond area noted positive growth, albeit at a slower pace. Hopefully, both districts report stronger production and sales levels to begin the new year. Meanwhile, Markit will report its “flash” Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for the United States, China and Europe. The most recent PMI data continue to show signs of weakness in the Eurozone, with even Germany experiencing declines. This contrasts with the United States and China, which have shown some signs of progress, despite growing only modestly at best. I would expect those same trends to continue.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.