Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
Recent events around the world remind us that the global economic and political environment remains uncertain. Manufacturers have had to cope with weather-related softness over the past few months, worries about the geopolitical situation and slowing growth rates in some of our largest trading partners, specifically China. Despite these challenges, they continue to be mostly upbeat about future activity.
The latest NAM/IndustryWeek Survey of Manufacturers found that 86.1 percent of respondents were positive about their company’s outlook, up from 78.1 percent three months ago, with increased expectations for sales, exports, employment and capital spending. Still, smaller manufacturers were less positive, particularly in their investment plans. The top challenges were the business climate and rising health care and insurance costs, with respondents noting the need for comprehensive tax reform and expressing concern about ever-increasing regulatory burdens.
Government regulations were also cited as the most important problem in the latest National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) survey of small business owners. It was one of two sentiment surveys released last week showing reduced confidence. NFIB’s Small Business Optimism Index fell sharply, down from 94.1 in January to 91.4 in February. The percentage saying it was a good time to expand declined, with weak sales and earnings expectations. Likewise, preliminary March consumer confidence numbers from the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters were also lower, perhaps reflecting concerns about job and income growth.
On the positive side, retail sales began to rebound in February, up 0.3 percent. While this was not enough to make up for the weather-induced declines of December and January, it did suggest there were possible “green shoots” on the consumer spending front, with Americans starting to return to the stores. For instance, the auto sector saw modest sales gains in February, a trend seen in other hard-hit sectors as well.
This week, much of the focus will be on the Federal Reserve Board, with a new monetary policy statement from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) coming out on Wednesday. While hiring remains soft (as the latest job openings numbers show), the unemployment rate is likely to reach the 6.5 percent threshold in the next month or two. Therefore, the expectation is that the FOMC will change its forward guidance on short-term interest rates to omit mention of an unemployment rate target. Fortunately, pricing pressures remain minimal, allowing the Federal Reserve to continue to pursue highly accommodative policies, even as it continues to taper its long-term asset purchases. Look for the FOMC to reduce its purchases from $65 billion each month in long-term and mortgage-backed securities to $55 billion.
It will be a busy week for economic releases, including new data on industrial production and housing starts. Manufacturing output should rebound somewhat, even as bad weather dampened activity once again. Similar findings are expected in the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank manufacturing surveys. Meanwhile, housing starts should also pick up slightly, but new residential activity will remain subpar relative to a few months ago. Still, we remain upbeat about the housing market for 2014 as a whole. Other highlights this week include new measures for consumer prices, homebuilder confidence and leading indicators.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.