Markit said that manufacturing activity in February continued to expand, but the pace of new orders slowed somewhat from January. The Flash Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for the United States declined from 55.8 to 55.2, suggesting a marginal change in the overall picture. The good news is that output appears to be recovering strongly, up from 56.8 to 58.1. Five months ago, the output index stood at 51.2, illustrating the improvements seen since then. Moreover, February’s output figure is the highest that it has been since March 2011.
The pace of growth for new orders, employment, and input prices eased a bit. These numbers – particularly sales – helped bring the composite index down for the month, even with higher output. The index for new orders dropped from 57.4 to 56.4. While U.S. sales continued to rise, new export orders contracted once more, reversing two months of modest gains and reflecting continuing weaknesses abroad, especially in Europe (see below). Meanwhile, hiring and raw material prices expanded in February, with each at their slowest pace of the last few months.
Markit Chief Economist Chris Williamson said, “Employment rose in February, but the rate of job creation slowed and remained weaker than policymakers would like to see.” He went on to say: “While the survey … paints an encouraging picture of the manufacturing sector, helping to drive a return to growth for the economy as a whole in the first quarter of this year, firms still need to see greater confidence in the longer-term economic outlook for employment numbers to pick up again.”
This improving – but still cautious – economic outlook in the U.S. stands in contrast to what we continue to see in Europe. The Markit Flash Eurozone Manufacturing PMI was essentially unchanged, down from 47.9 in January to 47.8 in February. While this index has improved from the 44.1 figure observed in August, it continues to reflect a challenging environment for businesses on the continent. The PMI has shown contracting levels since August 2011, or for 19 straight months.
Despite the persistent bad news, the rate of decline for new orders slowed in February in the manufacturing sector. One positive to report was an expansion in new export orders, up from 48.8 to 51.7, the first increase in export sales since June 2011. The Markit report attributed this to increased exports to Asia and the U.S., with strength particularly seen in Germany.
Along those lines, the Flash German Manufacturing PMI shifted from a slight contraction (49.8) to a slight expansion (50.1) for the month. As noted in the Eurozone release, the main driver of the higher index reading was stronger growth in sales, both domestic and foreign. The new orders index rose from 48.5 to 52.7; while the new export orders index increased from 48.2 to 54.6. The jump in sales slowed the decline in employment, at least for February, which was a good sign.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.