The HSBC Flash China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ index (PMI) continued to decelerate, down from 48.5 in February to 48.1 in March. The index has contracted for three consecutive months, with March’s pace being the slowest since July. As noted in the most recent Global Manufacturing Economic Update, these data mirror the easing that we have seen in other indicators, including industrial production, fixed asset investment, and retail sales. As such, they also suggest that real GDP might fall below the 7.7 percent rate seen in the fourth quarter.
Flash data give us an advance estimate of manufacturing activity incorporating “approximately 85% of the usual monthly survey replies,” with the final PMI data for the month released on April 1. The March data reflect decelerating levels of activity for new orders (down from 48.1 to 46.9) and output (down from 49.2 to 47.3). On the positive side, export sales shifted from contraction (49.3) to a slight expansion (51.4), and employment growth declined at a slower rate (up from 46.9 to 49.3).
Hongbin Qu, HSBC’s China Chief Economist and the Co-Head of Asian Economic Research, said, “Weakness is broadly-based with domestic demand softening further. We expect Beijing to launch a series of policy measures to stabilize growth. Likely options include lowering entry barriers for private investment, targeted spending on subways, air-cleaning and public housing, and guiding lending rates lower.”
Meanwhile, Eurozone manufacturers have seen expanding levels of activity for nine straight months, with continued modest growth in March. Nonetheless, the Markit Flash Eurozone Manufacturing PMI edged slightly lower, down from 53.2 in February to 53.0 in March. The underlying data were mixed. Sales growth picked up marginally from 54.1 to 54.4, but production (down from 55.5 to 55.4), exports (down from 54.7 to 53.6), and hiring (down from 50.4 to 50.3) moved slightly lower. Still, growth in output and new orders remained relatively healthy, even with some easing in many of the key figures.
One of the lagging economies in Europe has been France, which had contracting levels of manufacturing activity in all but 2 of the past 27 months. The good news was that French manufacturing sentiment turned positive once again in March, with the Markit Flash France Manufacturing PMI up from 49.7 to 51.9. Activity was up across the board, and growth in new orders (up from 46.6 to 53.3) were at their highest level since June 2011. Elsewhere in Europe, German manufacturing activity slowed a bit, down from 54.8 to 53.8. Despite the deceleration, output (down from 57.6 to 57.0) and sales (down from 57.2 to 55.6) growth remained strong.
Likewise, the Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing PMI moved lower for the month, down from 57.1 to 55.5. February’s figure reflected the strong rebound from January’s weather-related softness due to severe winter storms. Much like the European data, the larger story is the continued modest growth for manufacturers in the U.S. market. For instance, new orders (down from 58.8 to 58.0) continued to grow strongly even with a little easing for the month, and production (up from 57.2 to 57.5) and exports (up from 50.9 to 51.0) had a slightly faster pace of growth.
Employment growth (down from 54.0 to 53.9) was essentially unchanged for the month despite edging a bit lower for the month. After hiring nearly stalled last June, manufacturers have continued to add to their workforces, albeit at a modest pace.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.