Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
For much of the past month, people have been questioning how much of the recent softness in the manufacturing sector was due to weather and how much stemmed from other factors. The data released last week support the view that it was largely weather related, with numerous winter storms keeping shoppers from the stores and closing factories temporarily. Fortunately, manufacturing activity has rebounded in the latest reports. For instance, manufacturing production increased 0.8 percent in February, nearly offsetting January’s 0.9 percent decline, with capacity utilization for the sector rising from 75.9 percent to 76.4 percent. Similar rebounds were seen in the March surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks, and more importantly, manufacturers continue to be mostly upbeat about new orders and shipments over the next six months.
In its monetary policy statement, the Federal Reserve Board’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) acknowledged the negative effects of “adverse weather conditions” on recent activity. It also provided the following evaluation of the current economic environment:
Labor market indicators were mixed but on balance showed further improvement. The unemployment rate, however, remains elevated. Household spending and business fixed investment continued to advance, while the recovery in the housing sector remained slow. Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth, although the extent of restraint is diminishing. Inflation has been running below the Committee’s longer-run objective, but longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.
The biggest news from the FOMC’s statement was the change in its forward guidance, as expected, to no longer mention an unemployment rate target. Since its December 2012 meeting, the FOMC has said it would pursue a highly accommodative monetary policy until the unemployment rate hit 6.5 percent and/or long-term inflation consistently exceeded 2.0 percent. With unemployment falling, this put the Federal Reserve in a predicament because job growth continues to be a challenge, particularly for the long-term unemployed, and progress in the unemployment rate fails to acknowledge loforw participation rates and underemployment that exists in the labor market. For this reason, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Narayana Kocherlakota opposed the change in the Fed’s guidance, and he subsequently said that he wanted a 5.5 percent unemployment rate target.
In the end, however, short-term interest rates cannot hover around zero percent forever, particularly with the U.S. economy improving. The Federal Reserve now forecasts real GDP growth in 2014 of 2.8 percent to 3.0 percent, with the unemployment rate falling to 6.1 percent by year’s end. The FOMC continued to taper its long-term asset purchases, down from $65 billion each month to $55 billion, and short-term interest rates are now expected to start rising sometime in 2015. (This is true even with new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s suggestion that rates might begin to increase around six months after quantitative easing ends, a comment that spooked markets on Wednesday.)
Fortunately for the Federal Reserve, inflationary pressures remain minimal, allowing the FOMC to continue its stimulative measures for now. Consumer prices rose 0.1 percent in February, with core inflation increasing 1.6 percent over the past 12 months. Of course, higher interest rates could negatively impact spending, particularly for large consumer items and for business investments.
Along these lines, housing starts have stabilized a little, up from 905,000 annualized units in January to 907,000 in February, but still remain somewhat weak. On the positive side, housing permits—a proxy of future activity—exceeded 1 million for the first time since November, largely on gains in multifamily residential construction. Single-family permitting remained soft, however, and homebuilder sentiment continued to be down from where it was just a few months ago. In addition to weather challenges, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chief Economist David Crowe attributes the current weakness to “a shortage of buildable lots and skilled workers, rising materials prices and an extremely low inventory of new homes for sale.”
Today, we will get March Markit Flash Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data for the United States, China and Eurozone. In particular, economists will be looking to see if Chinese manufacturing activity continues to decelerate and if the slight easing in February’s data was a one-month phenomenon. (For more on international trends, see the latest Global Manufacturing Economic Update, which was released on Friday.) Other highlights this week include updates on consumer confidence, durable goods orders and shipments, GDP, manufacturing surveys from the Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks, personal income and spending and state employment.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.