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Manufacturers Cite a Rebound in Activity in Richmond Fed District

The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank said that manufacturing activity in its District rebounded in April after contracting in both February and March. The composite index increased from -7 in March to 7 in April as manufacturers have begun to recover from weather-related weaknesses. The pace of new orders (up from -9 to 10) and shipments (up from -9 to 6) both picked up for the month, helping to lead to the overall index higher. Capacity utilization returned to growth, but just barely (up from -14 to 1), suggesting some stabilization.

With that said, the index for the average workweek was unchanged (2), and employment growth remained weak, but fortunately positive (up from zero to 4).

Looking forward six months, manufacturers in the region remained mostly upbeat about the future, but eased somewhat in April. For instance, the index for expected new orders dropped from 30 to 21. Still, this suggests relatively strong growth in sales over the coming months, with similar optimism for shipments, utilization, hiring, and capital spending. In all, it indicates that manufacturing leaders in the Richmond Fed District are hopeful in their overall outlook despite the slippage in the forward-looking measures in this survey.

Meanwhile, pricing pressures are anticipated to be quite minimal. The prices paid for raw materials edged down from 0.85 percent at the annual rate in March to 0.78 percent in April. Likewise, final goods prices rose just 0.30 percent, down from the 0.32 growth rate the month before. Pricing pressures six months from now also eased, down from 1.81 percent to 1.32 percent.

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

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Leading Economic Indicators Increased at Fastest Pace in Four Months

The Conference Board said that the Leading Economic Index (LEI) rose 0.8 percent in March, extending the 0.5 percent gain observed in February. It was the fastest pace since November, and more than anything, it suggests that the U.S. economy has begun to move beyond the weather-related softness of December and January. This rebound was most notable in the variable for the average workweek of production workers, which added 0.26 percentage points to headline figure and offset declines from December to February. Yet, new manufacturing data were somewhat mixed, but a small positive on net.

Other positive contributors to the LEI included favorable credit conditions, initial jobless claims, the stock market, and the interest rate spread. At the same time, building permits and consumer confidence provided small drags to the LEI.

Meanwhile, the Coincident Economic Index (CEI), which assesses current conditions, was up 0.2 percent in March. It was the second straight monthly increase, down from 0.4 percent in February. All four components were higher for the month. This included industrial production, which rose 0.7 percent in March and added 0.11 percentage points to the CEI. Other contributors which added to the CEI were nonfarm payrolls, personal income, and manufacturing and trade sales.

In general, the Conference Board’s report is good news for the economy over the coming months, with the rebound a sign of strength moving forward.

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

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Monday Economic Report – April 21, 2014

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

The Federal Reserve Board’s April Beige Book brought new evidence that the moderate economic recovery is getting back on track as the impact of the harsh winter weather abates. Manufacturing improved in most of the Federal Reserve’s 12 districts, growing at a “steady pace” in New York, Atlanta, St. Louis and Dallas, and gaining “some momentum” in San Francisco. The transportation sector strengthened, with the outlook described as optimistic. Reports on both residential and commercial construction showed that the sector continues to improve, albeit slowly; this was consistent with the moderate pickup in housing starts, from 920,000 in February to 946,000 in March. Consumer spending increased in most districts, confirming that the resilience of the household sector remains a key driver of the recovery. The Beige Book also indicated that price and wage pressures remain limited. This supports the majority view of the Federal Open Market Committee that there is still sufficient slack in the labor market to warrant an accommodative monetary policy for some time.

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve’s Business Outlook Survey painted a similar picture, confirming a pickup in manufacturing activity following weather-related weakness the previous month, and with respondents optimistic that growth would continue over the coming months. Demand for manufactured goods rose, with the new orders index at +5.7 compared to February’s -5.2; shipments also increased. Employment levels were steady, but the survey recorded a more optimistic outlook here as well, with the percentage of firms expecting higher employment rising to 34 percent compared to February’s 27 percent. Just under half of firms polled expected higher capital spending this year compared to 2013, with one-fifth expecting a lower level. Firms not planning to increase capital spending cited low growth, low capacity utilization and limited need to replace capital and technology equipment. Overall, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve survey and the Beige Book confirm that the recovery is gaining more traction, but also suggest it will take longer for the pace of activity to accelerate in a more decisive manner.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen underscored the benign inflation scenario in a speech at the Economic Club of New York—her second public speech since assuming the Federal Reserve’s leadership. Asked whether the Federal Reserve would be prepared to let inflation drift above 2 percent in order to provide additional support to the recovery, Yellen noted that the risks are still skewed toward inflation being too low, not too high, and the Federal Reserve’s challenge for the time being is to bring inflation up and closer to the 2 percent target. She also pointed out that this low inflation environment currently characterizes not just the United States, but other main advanced economies, notably Japan and Europe, where the European Central Bank is debating possible additional monetary stimulus. Yellen stressed, however, that the Federal Reserve is well aware that overshooting the inflation objective “can be very costly,” and will, therefore, tighten policy in a timely manner at a pace dictated by the improvement in activity and employment. Unwinding monetary stimulus at the right pace is essential to the recovery’s sustainability, and the Federal Reserve will keep striving to guide market expectations to minimize the risks of sudden adjustments in market interest rates during the transition.

Inflation, meanwhile, edged up in March, with the headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) rising to 1.5 percent year-over-year compared to 1.1 percent in February, driven by increases in the prices of food, natural gas and electricity, partially compensated by a drop in gasoline prices. Core CPI inflation, calculated by stripping out the more volatile energy and food components, rose to 1.7 percent year-over-year from February’s 1.6 percent. The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, however—the change in the Personal Consumption Expenditure Deflator Index—is significantly lower and stood at 0.9 percent in February (the March figure has not yet been released).

This week will allow us to take the pulse of global manufacturing, with the Markit Flash Manufacturing PMIs for the United States, China and the Eurozone. The reading for China will be followed especially closely, given that an intensification of China’s slowdown might have repercussions on global demand for commodities. The durable goods report will offer another important gauge of the pace of the recovery and the health of demand for manufacturing in the United States. Other highlights include new home sales and the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index.

Many thanks to General Electric Chief Economist Marco Annunziata for compiling this week’s Monday Economic Report.

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Monday Economic Report – April 14, 2014

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

In the minutes of its March Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the Federal Reserve Board highlighted the negative impact of weather events on first-quarter growth. Winter storms hampered business investment, construction, consumer spending and manufacturing production. Nonetheless, the Federal Reserve still anticipates real GDP growth of between 2.8 and 3.0 percent in 2014, faster than last year’s 1.9 percent expansion. While this reflects a slight downgrade in the outlook for the year from the last forecast, it continues to suggest that the economy will regain its momentum moving forward. The Federal Reserve also predicts growth of 3.0 to 3.2 percent in 2015. The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook, which was released last week, mirrors these figures in its own forecasts for the United States.

The highlight of the FOMC minutes was the background discussion among participants regarding future monetary policy actions. The Federal Reserve largely feels that the U.S. labor market has a lot of “slack” in it, which is not reflected by the 6.7 percent unemployment rate. Despite improvements in the unemployment rate, weaknesses continue, with the participation rate near 30-year lows and high rates of both underemployment and part-time employment. While some FOMC members feel there has been sufficient economic progress to warrant less stimulative monetary policy measures, the majority view the current labor market as sufficiently weak enough to continue the Federal Reserve’s highly accommodative actions for the foreseeable future. The Federal Reserve will continue to reduce its long-term asset purchases, but short-term interest rates will likely not rise until next year at the earliest. Inflationary pressures remain modest, providing the Federal Reserve with some wiggle room to do its stimulative measures.

The most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data suggest the labor market for manufacturers remains soft. The number of manufacturing job openings declined for the third month in a row in February. Postings have been lower since peaking in November, and the December to February time frame mirrored the weather-related weaknesses seen in other data. Net hiring was also lower in those three months, with 2,000 more separations than hires in February. Still, the manufacturing sector has added an average of 12,125 workers each month since August, mirroring the uptick in demand and production that we have seen since that point. We are hopeful that hiring begins to accelerate again in the coming months.

Looking at the sentiment surveys last week, businesses and consumers were more upbeat. The California Manufacturing Survey from Chapman University reported rising expectations for new orders and production for the second quarter, but with employment growth remaining soft. Both durable and nondurable goods activity were anticipated to expand modestly in the current quarter. Likewise, small business owners in the National Federation of Independent Business’ (NFIB) survey were more optimistic about future sales, and those saying the next three months were a good time to expand edged marginally higher. Still, earnings remained weak, and the percentage suggesting they would bring on more workers moved lower. The University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters also noted improved consumer sentiment, a welcome gain after three months of dampened enthusiasm.

This week will be a busy one on the economic front, specifically with new reports on housing starts and industrial production. We hope to move beyond the weather-related weaknesses from earlier this year, and March’s manufacturing output numbers are expected to show a continued rebound. Similarly, housing starts moved slightly higher in February, but permits surpassed the 1 million mark for the first time since November; yet, rising interest rates, financial challenges for potential buyers and low inventory remain concerns. Other highlights this week include new data on consumer prices, leading indicators, manufacturing surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks and state employment.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. Note that General Electric Chief Economist Marco Annunziata will prepare the Monday Economic Report for April 21.

participation rate - apr2014

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Global Manufacturing Economic Update – April 11, 2014

Here is the summary for this month’s Global Manufacturing Economic Update:

In its latest World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now predicts global GDP growth of 3.6 percent in 2014 and 3.9 percent in 2015. The forecast for this year was essentially unchanged from the outlook in October, and it suggests that the global economy continues to recover. Global growth in 2013 was 3.0 percent. The IMF projects U.S. growth of 2.8 percent this year and 3.0 percent next year, up from 1.9 percent last year. Europe is another area where the IMF sees progress this year—albeit quite modestly—with real GDP growth of 1.2 percent in 2014 and 1.5 percent in 2015, with the continent emerging from its deep two-year recession. Despite the slightly better data overall, the IMF worries about low inflation in advanced economies, structural challenges in emerging markets and geopolitical risks.

The IMF also notes that China’s economy continues to decelerate, with real GDP growth of 7.5 percent in 2014 and 7.3 percent in 2015. This is consistent with recent data, which show activity in the manufacturing sector slowing down. The HSBC China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) has contracted for three straight months with falling levels of new orders and output. On the positive side, export sales appeared to pick up a bit in March. Next week, we will get new data for industrial production, fixed-asset investment and retail sales. Each has eased significantly in recent reports. Still, even with these slower rates, the outlook for China remains strong overall, and China has already begun to put stimulative measures in place to boost the economy further. As noted in the past report, the Bank of China has also supported a depreciation of the yuan in the past few months, but it asserts that its actions have been mainly to fend off speculators.

Weaknesses in China and Russia have also weighed heavily on manufacturing activity figures for emerging markets. The HSBC Emerging Markets Manufacturing PMI fell below 50 for the first time since July as demand and production stagnated. Nonetheless, outside of China and Russia, the picture for emerging markets was somewhat more positive. Several countries continued to experience modest growth rates, albeit with a slower pace than the month before in some cases. Two notable strengths among emerging markets hail from Eastern Europe. The Czech Republic and Poland continue to see strong growth in their manufacturing sectors despite some deceleration in March. For instance, the production index in the Czech Republic has now exceeded 60 for two straight months, a sign that output is experiencing healthy gains of late.

In all of Europe, manufacturers report slow-but-steady progress. The Markit Eurozone Manufacturing PMI has now expanded for nine consecutive months, an encouraging sign after the deep two-year recession. France, which had lagged behind many of its peers on the continent, had its manufacturing PMI figure exceed 50 for the first time since July 2011. However, overall economic growth remains modest. The unemployment rate continues to be elevated, even as it fell below 12 percent for the first time in 13 months. Weak income growth has caused many to worry about possible deflationary concerns. Annual inflation rates in the Eurozone have fallen from 1.7 percent in March 2013 to 0.5 percent in March 2014, and producer prices declined in February. Aware of these trends, the European Central Bank (ECB) held interest rates steady and said it was prepared to pursue quantitative easing, if necessary, to stimulate the economy further.

Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit widened in February due to a decrease in goods exports and an increase in service-sector imports. Manufactured goods exports in the first two months of 2014 were 0.6 percent lower than during the same time period last year, which was disappointing. Nonetheless, we continue to be optimistic that better economic growth rates abroad will lead to improvements on the export front. Fortunately, four of our top five markets for U.S.-manufactured goods notched year-to-date increases in the first two months relative to last year, including Mexico, China, Japan and Germany.

Efforts to move forward U.S.–European and Asian–Pacific negotiations continue, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) is heading to the next stage of implementing the recently completed Trade Facilitation Agreement. On the legislative side, Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank reauthorization efforts continue, while manufacturers keep pressing for congressional action on key trade legislation, such as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) and the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill (MTB).

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

eurozone inflation rates - apr2014

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Federal Reserve Participants Focused on Slack in the Economy at their March FOMC Meeting

The Federal Reserve Board released the minutes of its March 18-19 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. While we already had the statement from this meeting, the minutes allow us to know the inner deliberations of the Committee. The participants debated, for instance, the degree to which there was “slack” in the labor market, with some feeling that the reduced unemployment rate masked continuing weaknesses (e.g., low participation rate, high rates of underemployment and part-time employment) while others felt that some of these weaknesses mirrored larger demographic trends.

FOMC members also spent some time focusing on the impact of global events on the U.S. economy.  The recent deceleration in real GDP growth in China “had already put some downward pressure on world commodity prices, and a couple of participants observed that a larger-than-expected slowdown in economic growth in China could have adverse implications for global economic growth.” The participants also discussed the events of the Ukraine and the negative impact of possible geopolitical events.

One of the more controversial – in some circles – aspect of the March FOMC meeting was the dropping of the 6.5 percent target in its forward guidance. That target had been part of their guidance since the December 2012 FOMC meeting. There were discussions about replacing the 6.5 percent target with another number. (Narayana Kocherlakota, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, dissented from the final statement and later suggested that he felt the target should have been 5.5 percent.) In the end, the majority of participants voted to approve the switch from a “quantitative” to a “qualitative” target, which would be data dependent but still provide the FOMC with flexibility to act when it needed to.

The FOMC also voted to continue tapering its long-term and mortgage-backed security purchases from $65 billion each month to $55 billion each month. The minutes go on to say the following: “Members again judged that, if the economy continued to develop as anticipated, the Committee would likely reduce the pace of asset purchases in further measured steps at future meetings.”

In general, FOMC members wanted the public to know that it would maintain a highly accommodative stance on monetary policy for the foreseeable future. While tapering of long-term assets will continue at future meetings, short-term interest rates will stay near zero throughout 2014, and it is likely that they will not start to increase the federal funds rate until sometime in 2015.

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

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California’s Manufacturing Sector Expected to Improve in the Second Quarter

Manufacturing activity in California is expected to improve in the second quarter, according to the A. Gary Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University. The composite purchasing managers’ index (PMI) increased from 56.2 in the first quarter (January) to 58.5 in the second quarter (April). Indeed, manufacturers largely anticipate increased paces for production (up from 60.5 to 64.4) and new orders (up from 55.8 to 60.9). Roughly half of the respondents in the survey said that they thought sales and output would be higher in the second quarter.

Employment growth remained soft (down from 55.6 to 53.3). Looking at the specific responses, 24.1 percent felt that their employment levels would increase in the second quarter, with 11.4 percent saying that it would be lower. However, the bulk of responses (64.5 percent) said that their hiring levels would be unchanged for the quarter. One positive, of course, was that net hiring was positive, albeit only modestly so.

The PMI for nondurable goods (up from 56.7 to 58.2) advanced more than the one for durable goods industries (up from 58.1 to 58.3), which increased only marginally. Each was lower than it was one year ago, however, when durable and nondurable goods firms had index values of 60.3 and 60.9, respectively.

Overall, these data show that manufacturers in California see demand and production picking up this quarter. That is a good thing, but it is also worth noting that the pace of growth remains below the pace observed in mid-2013. Moreover, manufacturers in Orange County were less positive this quarter than in the last (down from 64.1 to 58.5) on slower new order and employment growth.

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

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Manufacturing Job Postings and Hiring Data Were Weaker in February

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that manufacturing job openings declined for the third month in a row in February. After peaking at 298,000 in November, the number of job postings in the sector has continued to move lower, with 250,000 openings recorded in February. Weather has negatively impacted overall economic activity over much of this period, and it is possible that winter conditions hampered employment growth, as well. Nonetheless, this is a trend that will hopefully reverse with coming data, and it reverses what had been upward movement from May to November of last year (up from 203,000 to 298,000).

Net hiring has followed a similar pattern and was also lower in February for the third straight month. Manufacturers added 234,000 workers in February, down from 244,000 in January. At the same time, the number of separations – including layoffs, quits, and retirements – fell from 242,000 to 236,000 for the month. As such, net hiring (or hires minus separations) shifted from a net gain of 2,000 in January to a net loss of 2,000 in February. This was well below the net hiring rate of 41,000 observed in November, illustrating the current softness in the labor market.

In contrast, employment numbers in the larger economy improved in February. Total job openings increased from 3,874,000 in January to 4,173,000 in February. This was the fastest pace for job postings since January 2008. Likewise, net hiring in the month in the nonfarm business sector rose from a rather weak 97,000 in January to 203,000 in February. While manufacturers hired fewer workers in the month, there were notable increases for retail trade, leisure and hospitality, and government.

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

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Small Business Confidence in March Recovered Some of its February Decline

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said that small business confidence in March recovered some of its February decline. The Small Business Optimism Index increased from 91.4 in February to 93.4 in March, but it had fallen from 94.1 in January. Sentiment among small firm owners has generally moved higher over the course of the past year, with quite a bit of volatility. For instance, just over the past six months, the Index has ranged from 91.6 to 94.1, with the government shutdown, weather and persistent uncertainties dampening optimism at times.

Despite the higher headline figure, the underlying data were largely mixed. On the positive side, the percentage of firms saying that the next three months were a “good time to expand” increased from 6 percent to 8 percent, returning it to the level recorded in January but still below December (10 percent). Of those saying that it was not the right time for expansion, the economy was the primary reason.

Still, “poor sales” – a proxy for the current economy – was not listed as the “single most important problem.” Instead, the top concern was a tie between taxes and “red tape,” with each cited by 21 percent of respondents. This was followed by poor sales (14 percent), the cost of insurance (10 percent), and the quality of labor (9 percent). Indeed, the net percentage of respondents saying that they expect higher sales in the next three months rose from 3 percent to 12 percent, reflecting a pickup in sentiment.

Nonetheless, earnings figures remain weak overall, and the employment and capital spending data were less positive. Small business owners said that the hiring slightly declined in March, with the net percentage planning to bring on new workers in the next three months down from 12 percent in January to 7 percent in February to 5 percent in March. Hopefully, the uptick in optimism on sales will reverse this trend in the coming months. Meanwhile, capital spending has edged marginally lower, with capital expenditure plans essentially unchanged so far this year.

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

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Revolving Credit Declined for the Second Straight Month in February

The Federal Reserve Board said that U.S. consumer credit outstanding rose 6.4 percent in February. Total consumer credit was $3.130 trillion, with $854.2 billion in revolving credit and $2.275 trillion in nonrevolving credit.

Over the course of the past 12 months, consumer credit has risen 5.6 percent, but that tells only part of the story. Nonrevolving credit, which includes auto and student loans, increased 7.7 percent over that time frame. However, revolving credit, which includes credit cards and other lines of credit, was up just 0.5 percent. In general, it suggests that Americans have been hesitant to use their credit cards when making purchases since the recession. Along those lines, revolving loans have declined in the first two months of 2014, down 0.3 percent from $856.8 billion in December.

Overall, growth in consumer credit has stemmed largely from increases in nonrevolving debt, especially for auto and student loans. For instance, student and motor vehicle loans increased 8.3 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively, using non-seasonally adjusted data in 2013.

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

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