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Personal Spending Data in July Show a Cautious Consumer Despite Recent Economic Progress

The Bureau of Economic Analysis said that personal spending fell 0.1 percent in July, its first decline since the weather-related storms in January. This finding mirrors recent news of flat retail sales in July, showing the consumer still cautious despite recent economic progress. Purchases of durable and nondurable goods fell by 0.7 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively, in July, with service-sector spending unchanged for the month. Nonetheless, personal spending has increased at an annualized 4.1 percent pace over the past six months. Hopefully, July’s figures represent a pause in what has otherwise been decent growth in consumer spending this year.

Personal income growth also eased to its slowest pace of 2014, down from 0.5 percent in June to 0.2 percent in July. Still, it was the seventh consecutive monthly increase in income growth, with personal incomes up 3.3 percent since December or 4.3 percent over the past 12 months. For manufacturers, total wages and salaries were unchanged at $787.3 billion in July, but they have risen 4.2 percent year-to-date (up from $755.3 billion in December).

The savings rate moved higher, up from 5.4 to 5.7 percent, with personal spending declining. That was the highest savings rate since December 2012. The rate has gradually moved higher so far this year, up from 4.1 percent in December.

In other news, the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) deflator eased somewhat in July, up 0.1 percent relative to 0.2 monthly percent gains from March through June. This reflects an increase in food prices (up 0.4 percent) that was mostly offset by a decline in energy prices (down 0.3 percent). The year-over-year pace was unchanged at 1.6 percent, with core inflation (which excludes food and energy costs) remaining at a 1.5 percent annual pace.

The Federal Reserve prefers the PCE deflator as its measure of inflation, and as such, it will welcome the news that pricing pressures have decelerated slightly over the summer months. At the same time, consumers will likely focus on the fact that both food (up 2.0 percent) and energy (up 2.4 percent) costs have risen modestly over the past 12 months, a pocketbook issue that they will notice when making purchases.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Real GDP Growth in the Second Quarter Revised Higher to 4.2 Percent

The Bureau of Economic Analysis revised its real GDP growth figures for the second quarter, up from an estimated 4.0 percent at the annual rate to 4.2 percent. This reflects slightly better fixed investment and net export figures. With that said, the underlying story remains the same. The U.S. economy grew frustratingly slow in the first half of 2014, with the strong rebound in the second quarter coming after a decline of 2.1 percent. Averaging these first two quarters together, real GDP expanded just 1.0 percent at the annual rate.

Consumer and business spending were positives. Goods spending rose an annualized 5.8 percent, adding 1.3 percentage points to real GDP in the second quarter. This was led by strong growth in motor vehicles, household furnishings and appliances and recreational goods. In terms of fixed investment, there were healthy rebounds in business spending on structures and equipment, with the restocking of inventories alone adding 1.4 percentage points to growth. Personal consumption expenditures and gross private domestic investment accounted for 4.3 percentage points of real GDP growth.

The other two components of real GDP were mixed. Government spending added 0.3 percentage points, but reduced defense spending served as a slight drag on growth. The biggest disappointment continues to be the trade figures. Goods exports rebounded strongly in the second quarter, up 13.8 percent, but that followed an 11.9 percent decline in the first quarter. Meanwhile, goods imports rose 2.5 percent and 12.3 percent, respectively, in the first and second quarters. Overall, net exports subtracted 0.4 percentage points from real GDP in the second quarter. To be fair, this was better than 0.6 percent rate observed in the first estimate.

Moving forward, manufacturers are mostly upbeat, and I estimate real GDP growth of 2.8 percent for the current quarter and 3.0 for the second half of this year. Still, a number of risks abound, and business leaders and consumers remain cautious. Regarding trade, policymakers should do what they can to increase sales opportunities abroad, including reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank and pursuing new trade agreements. The need to pursue other growth policies extends to other areas as well, as this year has taught us that even an optimistic recovery can still be fragile.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Richmond Fed: Manufacturing Activity Expanded at Fastest Pace in Three Years

The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank said that manufacturing activity expanded at its fastest pace since March 2011 in August. The composite index of general business conditions rose from 7 in July to 12 in August, marking the fifth consecutive monthly expansion after winter-related contractions in both February and March. Indeed, much like other regional surveys, these data show an uptick in demand and production for manufacturers this summer, with a mostly upbeat assessment for the coming months.

Looking specifically at current activity, manufacturing leaders in the Richmond Fed district noted increased paces for many of the key measures. This included new orders (up from 5 to 13), shipments (up from 3 to 10), capacity utilization (up from 4 to 17) and the average workweek (up from 3 to 8). The index for employment (down from 13 to 11) edged slightly lower, but it still indicated decent growth in hiring and improvement from earlier this year. (Hiring growth was flat as recently as February.)

Enhanced perceptions about the current economic environment also carried through to better expectations about the future. The forward-looking indices for manufacturing activity were mostly higher, and each suggested relative strength over the next six months. For instance, the expected new orders variable rose from 34 to 47, its highest point since December 2010. Manufacturers also planned to expand employment (down from 19 to 18) and invest in more capital (up from 19 to 27), even though the former’s pace eased marginally for the month.

Inflationary pressures decelerated somewhat in August after increasing in July.  Manufacturers in the region said that prices paid for raw materials grew 1.39 percent at the annual rate in August, down from 1.99 percent in July. Yet, looking ahead six months, respondents expect input costs to increase an annualized 2.05 percent, up from 1.89 percent the month before. This suggests that businesses anticipate modest gains in input prices over the course of the second half of 2014, mostly in-line with Federal Reserve projections.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Soaring Aircraft Sales Boosted Durable Goods Orders in July, but Orders Were Soft Otherwise for the Month

The Census Bureau said that new durable goods orders soared in July, up a whopping 22.6 percent for the month from $244.8 billion in June to $300.1 billion in July. This represented an all-time high for the data series, but it was also largely the result of a jump in nondefense aircraft sales (up from $16.8 billion to $70.3 billion). Commercial airplane orders are choppy, with sales usually announced in batches. This could suggest a return to a more-normal rate in the coming months. With that aside, new durable goods orders have improved from earlier in the year, with sales of just $224.0 billion in January.

Outside of transportation (which included stronger motor vehicle sales, up 10.2 percent), the manufacturing sector was weak in July. New durable goods orders excluding transportation fell 0.8 percent in July, down from $168.5 billion to $167.2 billion. This suggests that the broader market for manufacturers was soft in July despite the sky-high headline figure.

Indeed, the sector-by-sector data were mostly lower. Orders were off for electrical equipment and appliances (down 3.7 percent), machinery (down 1.6 percent), computers and electronic products (down 1.2 percent), fabricated metal products (down 0.4 percent) and primary metals (down 0.3 percent). Beyond transportation, some positives included communications equipment (up 9.9 percent) and miscellaneous durable goods (up 0.3 percent). Still, it is important not to overstate this one negative month too much. Year-to-date, new durable goods orders excluding transportation have risen at a fairly decent pace, up 5.9 percent.

Meanwhile, durable goods shipments were up 3.3 percent for the month, or 1.4 percent when you exclude transportation. Similar to the new orders data described above, the pace of shipments growth has largely improved over the course of this year, with 6.7 percent growth since December. Motor vehicle shipments rebounded after a weak June, up 10.4 percent in July and 13.7 percent year-to-date. Other sectors were also positive for the month in terms of shipments growth, with the largest gains seen in machinery (up 2.4 percent), computers and electronic products (up 2.3 percent), electrical equipment and appliances (up 2.1 percent) and primary metals (up 1.3 percent).

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Manufacturers in Texas Continue to Grow, but at a Somewhat Slower Pace in August

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said that manufacturing activity continued to grow, but at a slower pace in August. The composite index of general business activity declined somewhat from 12.7 in July to 7.1 in August. It was the 15th consecutive month of expanding levels of activity; however, manufacturers reported a near-stagnant pace in February. As such, it suggests that manufacturing sentiment has rebounded since weather and other factors negatively impacted activity earlier in the year.

Nonetheless, with the composite index lower, many of the key subcomponents were less positive in August than in July. This included new orders (down from 13.0 to 2.2), production (down from 19.1 to 6.8), shipments (down from 22.8 to 6.4), hours worked (down from 6.3 to 2.9) and capital expenditures (down from 13.3 to 6.6). Hiring (down from 11.4 to 11.1) was only slightly lower, but still registering decent growth overall.

The declines in many of these indicators could simply be the result of very strong growth over the past few months, with August’s indices mostly sustaining past gains before moving forward. If that is the case, these latest data could reflect a “breather” before continued expansion in the months ahead.

In fact, manufacturers in the Dallas Fed region remain mostly positive about the next six months. The forward-looking measure of one’s company outlook rose from 24.4 in July to 30.1 in August, and several of the underlying data points also moved higher for the month. Over half of the survey respondents anticipate increased sales, production and shipments in the future, with nearly one-third planning new hires and over one-quarter expecting to increase their capital spending. The one negative remains elevated pricing pressures, with 45.5 percent of those taking the survey seeing higher input costs over the next six months versus just 1.9 predicted lower costs.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Monday Economic Report – August 25, 2014

Here is the summary of this week’s Monday Economic Report:

Market leaders continue to play the guessing game of when the Federal Reserve Board will start to normalize short-term interest rates. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will begin to raise the federal funds rate sometime in 2015 from the near-zero levels that have been prevalent since the financial crisis in 2008. The Federal Reserve has already announced that it will cease purchasing long-term and mortgage-backed securities in October. In the July FOMC meeting minutes, participants noted recent improvements in the economy, including increased activity among manufacturers (see below). Most notably, they said the following regarding monetary policy over the next few months:

“…many participants noted that if convergence toward the Committee’s objectives occurred more quickly than expected, it might become appropriate to begin removing monetary policy accommodation sooner than they currently anticipated.”

That line, which was widely reported in the media, was seen as hawkish. Indeed, financial markets saw that statement as a sign that short-term rates might rise sooner than expected, perhaps as early as the first quarter of 2015. In her keynote speech at a Kansas City Federal Reserve economic symposium at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen reiterated this point, noting the role that upcoming economic data will have on the timing of policy normalization. She cited continued “slack” in labor markets, but also highlighted positive developments more recently. Either way, it remains true that monetary policy will remain highly accommodative for the foreseeable future, with short-term rate hikes (whenever they occur) being gradual. Recent data on consumer and producer prices have shown inflationary pressures easing a bit, even as they remain near the Federal Reserve’s stated target of 2 percent.

Meanwhile, economic data released last week suggest that the manufacturing rebound that we have seen since the winter continues to strengthen. The Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) increased sharply, up from 55.8 in July to 58.0 in August, reaching its highest level since April 2010. The indices for new orders and production were both above 60, suggesting strong growth and closely mirroring similar data from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM). The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank’s manufacturing survey also reported healthy gains in August, with activity growing at its fastest pace in more than three years, and respondents were very upbeat in their assessment of the next six months. Still, if there are any weaknesses of note, it would be overseas. Manufacturing demand and output were softer in both China and Europe, for instance.

The housing market also appears to be faring better of late, recovering somewhat from the lull that we saw earlier in the year. Housing starts jumped 15.7 percent in July, offsetting significant declines in both May and June. Starts reached their second-highest pace since November 2007, with an annualized 1,093,000 units in July. Both single-family and multifamily construction activity were higher for the month, and housing permits also reflected progress. In addition, existing home sales also notched improved figures in July, with activity up for the fourth straight month. Overall, this is encouraging news for residential construction. We would expect a solid 1.1 million housing starts at the annual rate by year’s end, representing slow-but-steady progress.

This week, we will get an update on second-quarter real GDP, with consensus expectations calling for a slight downward revision from the 4.0 percent growth rate estimate announced in late July. The new figure would still represent a rebound from the first quarter’s decline of 2.1 percent. We will also see if regional activity continues to expand in the August manufacturing surveys from the Dallas, Richmond and Kansas City Federal Reserve Banks, mirroring what we have seen in the similar New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve reports. Other highlights include the latest data on consumer confidence, durable goods orders and personal income and spending.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Philly Fed: Manufacturers Continue to See Health Gains in August

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reported healthy gains in manufacturing activity in August, with the fastest pace since March 2011. The Business Outlook Survey’s composite index of general business activity increased from 23.9 in July to 28.0 in August. This represents significant progress from earlier in the year, when activity contracted briefly in February. It was the fifth straight month with the headline index being in double digits, averaging 20.3 from April to August. This would indicate more than just a rebound; it would suggest relatively strong growth overall.

The various sub-components of the index also reflect a continued expansion in the manufacturing sector. With that said, they also suggest that July’s strengths were a bit of an outlier, with many of the key measures pulling back in August while still reflecting solid gains. For instance, the paces for new orders (down from 34.2 to 14.7) and shipments (down from 34.2 to 16.5) both eased; yet, nearly one-third of the survey respondents said that each increased for the month, with roughly half suggesting that they stayed the same.

The employment data were mixed, but still positive. Hiring growth (down from 12.2 to 9.1) decelerated a bit, but one-quarter of those taking the survey reported additional hires. At the same time, the average workweek (up from 12.5 to 13.3) widened somewhat, with 21.2 percent of respondents citing a longer workweek in August.

Looking ahead six months, manufacturers in the Philly Fed district were overwhelmingly upbeat. The future-oriented composite index jumped from 52.0 to 58.1. Moreover, 56.1 percent of survey-takers said that they expect their sales to increase in the coming months, with just 2.6 percent predicted declines. Likewise, over 60 percent predict increased shipments, nearly one-third plan to hire additional workers, and over one-quarter intend to increase capital expenditures. Still, pricing pressures remain a worry. In fact, 40.9 percent of manufacturers in the region anticipate increased raw material costs, with 2.7 percent seeing reduced input prices.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Growth in Chinese and European Manufacturing Activity Slowed in August, While U.S. Was Up Sharply

Given the contraction seen in the Eurozone economy in the second quarter, analysts were eagerly anticipating the preliminary Markit Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data released this morning. Indeed, the HSBC Flash Eurozone Manufacturing PMI decelerated from 51.8 in July to 50.8 in August, suggesting that growth in manufacturing activity on the continent has slowed to a crawl. Germany (down from 52.4 to 52.0) eased slightly, but with output falling to its slowest pace since June 2013. French manufacturers (down from 47.8 to 46.5) continue to struggle, with its Flash Manufacturing PMI contracting for the fourth straight month and new orders declining at their quickest pace since in 16 months.

For the Eurozone as a whole, manufacturing activity was slower across-the-board. New orders (down from 52.1 to 51.0), output (down from 52.7 to 50.9), exports (down from 52.6 to 52.1) and employment (down from 49.9 to 49.1) were all lower in August, with the latter contracting for the second consecutive month. Production growth was at its weakest point since Europe emerged from its deep recession 13 months ago. In essence, the good news was that European manufacturing activity did not contract in August, but it is clear that demand and output are moving in the wrong direction. These data will continue to be fodder for those looking for economic stimulus in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, the HSBC Flash China Manufacturing PMI was also much softer for the month, down from 51.7 in July to 50.3 in August. As such, manufacturing expanded for the third straight month, but only barely so. New orders (down from 53.3 to 51.3), output (down from 52.8 to 51.3) and export sales (down from 52.6 to 51.4) downshifted from a modest pace to slower growth, and employment (down from 49.4 to 48.2) deteriorated further. In fact, hiring has been negative in 16 of the past 17 months. While China has begun to stabilize its economy after weaknesses earlier in the year, these data show that there remains room for improvement.

Japan’s economy contracted in the second quarter, falling 1.7 percent in the second quarter or 6.8 percent year-over-year. Yet, the Markit/JMMA Flash Japan Manufacturing PMI (up from 50.5 to 52.4) seem to indicate that manufacturers are in a better mood, with a pickup seen in demand and output. This was the fastest pace since March, or before the imposition of a new tax in April that sent the economy lower. The underlying data were mostly higher, including sales (up from 51.2 to 54.4), production (up from 49.8 to 53.2), exports (up from 50.8 to 53.0) and hiring (up from 50.2 to 51.1).

Closer to home, the Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing PMI was up sharply, up from 55.8 to 58.0. This was the highest level for manufacturing activity in the U.S. since April 2010. Both new orders (up from 59.5 to 60.8) and output (up from 59.7 to 60.2) were above 60, suggesting strong growth and closely mirroring similar data from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM). New export orders (up from 50.3 to 54.4) and employment (up from 51.2 to 54.6) were both higher, as well, with each recording modest expansions. Overall, these data were quite positive, indicating that the recent rebound in manufacturing activity in the U.S. (after softness in the early months of 2014) has begun to take hold.

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 in early September.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Consumer Inflation Eased Slightly in July, but with Prices Up 2 Percent in the Past 12 Months

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that consumer prices increased 0.1 percent in July, its slowest pace in 6 months. Nonetheless, food prices continue to rise, up 0.4 percent in July. The price of food purchased for the home has risen 2.2 percent year-to-date, or 2.5 percent in the past 12 months. The bulk of this increase has come from meats, eggs, shellfish and fresh produce. For instance, consumers have spent 9.3 percent more year-over-year on meats (e.g., beef and veal, pork, poultry and fish and seafood), with an increase of 0.4 percent for the month, mirroring the headline figure.

In contrast, energy prices have eased, mirroring producer price data released last week. Consumers have benefited from lower prices for natural gas and petroleum. For instance, the cost of West Texas intermediate crude oil declined from a recent peak of $107.95 per barrel on June 20 to $98.23 on July 31. The consumer price index data suggest that energy prices fell 0.3 percent in July. At the same time, energy expenses have risen 1.2 percent over the past 12 months, largely from higher costs for the home.

Excluding food and energy, consumer prices were up 0.1 percent, matching the increase seen the month before. Higher prices for apparel, medical care, new motor vehicles and shelter were somewhat offset by reduced costs for transportation services and used cars and trucks.

Overall, the consumer price index rose 2.0 percent from July 2013 to July 2014, its fourth straight month with an inflation rate of 2.0 percent or more. With that said, it represents an easing from the 2.1 percent paces seen in May and June. The core inflation rate – which excludes food and energy – has been 1.9 percent for three consecutive months.

While core pricing pressures have accelerated from earlier in the year, they appear to be stabilizing somewhat this summer. That should be good news for the Federal Reserve, which has targeted 2.0 percent in its stated goals. Still, the Federal Open Market Committee will closely watch to see how pricing pressures develop in the coming months, particularly as it prepares to start normalizing short-term rates in early 2015.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Housing Starts Rebounded in July to Their Second-Highest Pace since the Recession

The Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said that housing starts increased 15.7 percent in July, offsetting significant declines in both May and June. Starts increased from an annualized 945,000 in June to 1,093,000 in July. This was the fastest pace since the 1,105,000 rate observed in November, making it the second-highest pace since November 2007. This is a sign that the lull that we have seen in the housing market so far this year has begun to dissipate, which is definitely a positive sign. New residential construction starts have increased 21.7 percent year-over-year.

The bulk of the increase in July stemmed from the highly-volatile multi-family segment, up from 339,000 to 437,000. This was the fastest pace in multi-family construction activity since January 2006. At the same time, single-family starts also improved, up from 606,000 to 656,000, the highest rate since December. Single-family starts have increased 10.1 percent over the past 12 months.

Meanwhile, housing permits mirrored the progress with starts data, rising 8.1 percent in July after two consecutive decreases in May and June. Housing permits grew from 973,000 at the annual rate in June to 1,052,000 in July, representing an increase of 7.7 percent year-over-year. Single-family (up from 634,000 to 640,000) and multi-family (339,000 to 412,000) permitting were both higher, with the latter up a whopping 21.5 percent for the month.

Overall, July’s housing numbers were encouraging, particularly given the softness seen earlier in the year. Housing starts had averaged 961,000 from January to June, bottoming out at 897,000 in January. Financial difficulties in obtaining credit (particularly for first-time home buyers) and economic uncertainties were obstacles for some. Moving forward, we would expect August’s housing data to remain above the one-million mark, with starts solidly at 1.1 million by year’s end, representing slow-but-steady progress in the residential market.

This would be consistent with rising confidence in the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo report released yesterday. The Housing Market Index increased for the third straight month, up from 53 in July to 55 in August. It was the second month with the index above 50, an indication that more home builders were positive than negative in their outlook. More importantly, it was the highest level since January, with builder confidence lagging from February to June with an average of 46.4 over that five-month span. The latest rebound is perhaps a sign that the sector has begun to recover somewhat.

Indeed, the index of expected single-family sales over the next 6 months rose from 63 in July to 65 in August, its fastest pace in 12 months. With that said, some of the underlying data indicate that persistent challenges remain. For instance, the index of buyer traffic, while up from 39 to 42, remains below the all-important threshold of 50. Moreover, the regional data were mixed, with home builder confidence up in the Midwest and Northeast but marginally lower in the South and West.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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