Here is the summary of this week’s Monday Economic Report:
The U.S. economy grew 2.4 percent in the fourth quarter, down from the earlier estimate of 3.2 percent. Given some of the recent weaker manufacturing, retail and housing data, the downward revision was largely expected. Still, there are some positives in the report, with strength in consumer spending, business investment and net exports. Fixed investment was higher in this revision, which was welcome news. Federal government spending accounted for the biggest drag on growth during the fourth quarter, subtracting one percentage point from the total figure.
The bottom line is that real GDP increased 3.3 percent in the second half of 2013, providing some momentum for growth moving into this year. While weather and other factors have dampened the economy recently (and will also reduce real GDP in the current quarter), we still expect 3.0 percent growth for 2014. Manufacturers continue to be mostly upbeat about demand and production over the coming months.
Despite such optimism in the outlook for the year, the current environment for manufacturers clearly has its challenges. Weather has negatively impacted production and shipments in a number of regions around the country, and surveys from the Dallas, Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks all observed some easing in activity in February. This followed similar reports from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks the week before. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau has reported lower new durable goods orders for two straight months, with poor weather conditions likely a factor, particularly for auto sales. At the same time, new durable goods orders excluding transportation were higher, suggesting that the broader manufacturing market was slightly better than the headline figure indicated.
Some of the other data remain mixed. New home sales were up sharply in January to their highest level since July 2008, but year-over-year growth was more modest, and inventories of new homes have fallen over the past few months. Nonetheless, the positive report on new home sales stands in contrast to much weaker residential construction figures of late, including housing starts and existing home sales, which have seen negative impacts from the weather. Similarly, the two major reports about consumer confidence moved in opposite directions, with the Conference Board’s measure lower in February and the University of Michigan’s figure edging slightly higher. Doubts about income and labor growth have possibly fed some anxieties in sentiment in both surveys, but the two reports differ in their findings about the economic outlook.
This week, the focus will be on manufacturing activity, employment growth and international trade. We will get February Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) later this morning. After falling from 56.5 in December to 51.3 in January, the ISM PMI is expected to increase modestly, still indicating weaknesses in new orders and production for the month. On the trade front, we will be looking for better manufactured goods exports in 2014, improving on the modest 2.4 percent growth rate seen in 2013. Still, manufactured goods exports hit an all-time high last year, providing a positive for economic growth.
The biggest news of the week will come on Friday with the release of new jobs numbers. Nonfarm payroll growth has been soft over the past two months, with just 75,000 and 113,000 net new workers added in December and January, respectively. The consensus expectation is for roughly 165,000 nonfarm workers added in February. In contrast, manufacturing job gains have been fairly decent over the past six months, averaging 15,500 since August, and we should get modest gains again in February. One of the bigger conversation pieces will be whether the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent in February, which is the rate specified in the Federal Reserve Board’s forward guidance. (Either way, look for the Federal Open Market Committee to change its guidance at its next meeting.) Other highlights this week include the latest data on construction spending, factory orders, personal income and spending and productivity.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.
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