The Census Bureau said that new durable goods orders increased 3.4 percent in April, extending the 1.9 percent gain seen in March. Sales of new durable goods orders rose from $228.3 billion in March to $235.9 billion in April. Demand have risen in three of the four months so far in 2016, providing some encouragement for a sector that has experienced its share of softness over the past year. On a year-over-year basis, sales have risen from $231.5 billion in April 2015, an increase of 1.9 percent. Yet, much of that gain came from transportation equipment, particularly aircraft sales. Excluding transportation, new orders for durable goods increased by just 0.4 percent, and over the past 12 months, that figure was down 1.4 percent. This suggests that demand remains somewhat weaker than the headline number would seem to indicate – a sign that durable goods manufacturers continue to be challenged beyond automobiles and aircraft. Read More
The Census Bureau said that retail sales rose 1.3 percent in April, rebounding from a decline of 0.3 percent. Much of that improvement stemmed from better motor vehicles and parts sales, up 3.2 percent and offsetting the 3.2 percent decrease in the prior report. Other sectors with increased sales in April included gasoline stations (up 2.2 percent), nonstore retailers (up 2.1 percent), miscellaneous store retailers (up 1.5 percent), food and beverage stores (up 0.9 percent), health and personal care stores (up 0.9 percent) and furniture and home furnishings stores (up 0.7 percent), among others. The segment with reduced sales in April was building materials and garden supplies, down 1.0 percent.
Overall, consumers continue to spend modestly, with retail spending up 3.0 percent over the past 12 months. That is a decent pace, even if there remains a sense that the public might be holding back from even stronger spending. The year-over-year rate in February, for instance, was 3.6 percent.
It is also important to recognize the impact that lower gasoline prices have had on the data. Reduced prices have decreased gasoline station sales by 9.4 percent. Excluding gasoline stations, retail sales were up 4.1 percent year-over-year. As such, spending is perhaps better than the headline number suggests.
The current state of the manufacturing economy continues to be a give-and-take between signs that the sector is beginning to improve versus ongoing challenges related to global headwinds. The latest job numbers represent both of those views. On the one hand, manufacturers added 4,000 workers in April, a positive gain following two months of declines which was led by strength in the motor vehicle segment. Yet, hiring remained soft overall, with 23,000 fewer workers on net through the first four months of 2016. Indeed, manufacturing leaders remain cautious in their outlook, and as such, we continue to see weaker-than-desired job growth. Hopefully, that will improve moving forward, particularly if the manufacturing economy truly is beginning to stabilize. Read More
The Census Bureau said that private manufacturing construction spending rebounded somewhat in March. The value of construction put in place rose from $77.61 billion at the annual rate in February to $79.33 billion in March, up 2.2 percent for the month. Since achieving the all-time high of $89.65 billion in May 2015, construction activity in the manufacturing sector has ebbed somewhat. Yet, the larger trend has been a positive one, boosted in particular by increased investments in the chemical sector, which continues to benefit from cost advantages in the energy sector. To illustrate this growth, manufacturing construction has risen by 55.0 percent over the past 24 months, even as the year-over-year pace was a decline of 2.0 percent. Read More
The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) expanded for the second straight month, albeit at a slower pace in April. The composite index declined from 51.8 in March to 50.8 in April, but even with the decrease, this represented progress in the manufacturing sector after contracting for five consecutive months from October through February. New orders (down from 58.3 to 55.8) and production (down from 55.3 to 54.2) each grew at decent rates for the month despite some easing in this release, and exports (up from 52.0 to 52.5) accelerated, increasing for only the third time in the last 12 months.
Last month’s release helped to fuel the narrative that manufacturing activity was starting to stabilize, and the current data mostly support that view. At the same time, though, manufacturers remain challenged by global headwinds and still-low commodity prices, and a number of economic indicators have been disappointing, highlighting the fact that business’ struggles are still far from over. The sample comments tended to echo this nuanced view of modest improvements, with some respondents noting a pickup in sales while others cited ongoing sluggishness. One’s perspective was likely industry-specific. Read More
The Bureau of Economic Analysis said that personal spending remained soft in March, up just 0.1 percent, despite decent income growth. Personal consumption expenditures had increased by 0.2 percent in January and February. Reduced motor vehicle spending in March helped to drag down durable goods spending by 0.6 percent, but this was offset by a similar increase in nondurable goods purchases. With slower spending, the savings rate rose to 5.4 percent, its highest level since February 2015. Despite this, personal consumption expenditures continued to grow at a modest pace year-over-year, down from 3.9 percent in February to 3.5 percent in March. As such, consumer spending remains one of the brighter spots in the U.S. economy, even as it remains clear that Americans might be holding back somewhat from making larger purchases. Read More
The Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank said that manufacturing activity continued to decline in April, contracting for the 14th straight month. Reduced crude oil prices, the strong dollar and weaknesses abroad have pressured the sector’s performance, especially since the district includes energy-intensive Oklahoma. With that said, the pace of decline slowed for production (up from -14 to -8), shipments (up from -15 to -6), exports (up from -10 to -4) and the average workweek (up from -10 to -6). New orders remained slightly negative (unchanged at -2), and hiring continued to lag behind (unchanged at -12). Despite the negative seasonally-adjusted figure, one-third of respondents had increased new orders for the month, with 29 percent citing declines.
Meanwhile, the forward-looking data composite index returned to positive territory, up from -2 in March to 10 in April, its highest level in 14 months. Indeed, manufacturers in the Kansas City Fed’s district appeared to be more upbeat in April, with greatly-improved assessments for future orders (up from zero to 20), production (up from 5 to 25) and shipments (up from 5 to 27). More than 40 percent of those completing the survey expected increases in each of those three activities over the next six months. In addition, more respondents expect increased employment (up from 1 to 8) and a longer average workweek (up from 3 to 8), with modest gains seen in the labor market. Nonetheless, it was not all good news. Exports (up from zero to 1) were anticipated to remain marginally positive over the coming months, and capital expenditures (up from -9 to -6) were expected to continue to contract.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis said that the U.S. economy grew just 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2016, signifying a sluggish start to the year. This was slightly below the consensus estimate of real GDP growth of 0.7 percent, and it was down from 1.4 percent growth in the fourth quarter of 2015. In many ways, the data for the first quarter mirrored the trends seen in the prior report, with drags on growth coming from fixed business investment and net exports. Consumer spending on goods was the difference-maker in this release. While personal consumption continued to be one of the brighter spots, adding 1.27 percentage points to headline GDP growth, that increase stemmed almost entirely from spending on services. The gain from goods spending was negligible – adding just 0.03 percentage points. This finding is consistent with the disappointing retail sales numbers observed year-to-date, particularly for durable goods, and it was another sign that Americans have pulled back on their purchases as a result of anxieties in the economic outlook. Read More
The Federal Reserve left short-term interest rates unchanged, as expected, at the conclusion of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. In its statement, the FOMC acknowledged that “economic activity appears to have slowed” despite progress in some areas, most notably in the labor market. As such, it left the federal funds rate at the ¼ to ½ percent target range that it established at its December meeting. More importantly, participants appear to not be a hurry to raise rate, expressing some caution moving forward. They write, “The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the long run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.”
At their prior meeting, the economic projections signaled two interest rate increases in 2016, each by 25 basis points. By itself, that was an admission that economic conditions no longer warranted four rate increases this year – the stated goal coming into 2016. The consensus among most economist had been for the FOMC to hike interest rates again at its June 14–15 meeting. That could still happen, but that will hinge on better data coming in between now and then. Hopefully, improvements in the broader economy would include manufacturing, which continues to lag other segments. With that said, this press release would seem to indicate that a June rate increase just became less likely.
Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank President Esther L. George dissented in her vote. She has established herself as an inflation hawk, and she would have preferred for the FOMC to have raised the federal funds rate to ½ to ¾ percent at this meeting.
The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank said that manufacturing activity expanded for the second straight month in April. The composite index of general business activity declined from 22 in March to 14 in April. More importantly, the relatively strong data seen in this report are consistent with some stabilization in activity following significant softness over the course of the past year. For instance, new orders (down from 24 to 18) and shipments (down from 27 to 14) each expanded strongly in April despite some easing in the pace of growth in this latest report. Capacity utilization (up from 17 to 18) accelerated slightly in April, its highest point since December 2010. In addition, the labor market variables continued to grow modestly, with some pullback for the month, including hiring (down from 11 to 8) and the average workweek (down from 16 to 9). Read More