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.