Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
The U.S. economy grew 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter, according to the most recent revision, and for 2013 as a whole, real GDP growth was a rather lackluster 1.9 percent. Consumer spending, business investment and net exports were bright spots in the fourth quarter, with reduced government spending subtracting nearly one percentage point from growth.
Meanwhile, business economists predict real GDP growth of 2.8 percent on average for 2014, with 1.9 percent growth in the current quarter. (My own forecast is marginally higher for both, up 3.0 percent for the year and 2.1 percent for the first quarter of 2014.) Weather-related slowdowns account for the deceleration in activity, particularly for manufacturers, in the current quarter. However, modest growth is expected to resume once temperatures warm up, and we have already begun to see that. The National Association for Business Economics (NABE) Outlook Survey also suggested that the industry should grow 3.2 percent in 2014 and 3.4 percent in 2015, which would indicate a pickup from the current pace.
The latest manufacturing surveys show a rebound in sentiment after softness from December to February. The Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) slowed a bit, down from 57.1 in February to 55.5 in March. Despite the lower figure, new orders and production growth continued to grow relatively strongly, with overall manufacturing activity improved from January’s winter storms. A similar recovery was seen in regional data from the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, mirroring the findings from New York and Philadelphia the week before. Still, not everyone has seen improvements yet. The Richmond Federal Reserve reported lackluster growth in sales and output, with weather continuing to “wreak havoc” for many manufacturers. In addition, while new durable goods orders were up a strong 2.2 percent in February, sales growth increased at the less-than-robust rate of just 0.2 percent when transportation orders were excluded.
On the consumer front, the data were mostly positive, but with some caveats. Personal income and spending both increased 0.3 percent in February, with each rising 3.0 percent over the past 12 months. This was a decent pace, but increased purchases of nondurable goods and services mainly fueled spending growth in February. Durable goods spending declined for the third month in a row. In terms of consumer confidence, the two reports out last week were mixed. The Conference Board’s measure of consumer sentiment reached a six-year high; yet, labor market worries dampened enthusiasm for the current environment. Likewise, the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters reported that consumer sentiment edged lower in March, with employment and income growth also weighing on respondents’ minds. In both surveys, however, Americans are more confident today than in the fall during the government shutdown.
Looking overseas, Markit released preliminary manufacturing PMI data for China and the Eurozone. Chinese manufacturing activity has now contracted for three consecutive months, with March’s pace being the slowest since July. The data mirror other recent indicators, including industrial production, fixed asset investment and retail sales, which have slowed. As such, they all suggest that real GDP might fall below the 7.7 percent rate in the fourth quarter. (First-quarter real GDP for China will be released on April 15.) Meanwhile, European manufacturers have seen expanding activity levels for nine straight months, even as Eurozone PMI values eased slightly in March. New orders and production remain strong in Germany, and, of note, French manufacturers were positive in their sentiment for the first time since June 2011.
This week, the focus will be on the March jobs numbers, which will come out on Friday. The consensus expectation is for nonfarm payroll growth of around 190,000, with manufacturers hiring somewhere near the 12,000 average experienced in the sector since August. In addition, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) is expected to show a slight rebound in manufacturing PMI activity in its March data, up from 53.2 in February. Other highlights this week include the latest data on construction spending, factory orders and international trade.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.