Kansas City Fed: Manufacturing Activity Rebounded a Little in August

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Manufacturing activity rebounded in the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank’s district in September, expanding after two months of declines. The composite index of general business conditions increased from -4 in August to 6 in September, its fastest pace of growth since December 2014. Indeed, there were rather strong gains seen for new orders (up from -7 to 12), production (up from -7 to 15) and shipments (up from -4 to 16) to support the improved sentiment seen in this survey’s headline number. To be fair, though, the sector also continues to have a number of challenges. Most notably, that includes exports (up from -10 to -4), which contracted for the eighth consecutive month. Manufacturers in the Kansas City region – not unlike their peers in other districts – have had to grapple with a strong U.S. dollar and weaknesses abroad, both of which have dampened international demand.

The labor market data were mixed. On the one hand, hiring activity (up from -10 to -3) remains soft, even with some easing in the rate of decline in September. The index for the number of employees has been negative now for 21 straight months. At the same time, employers appear to be expanding hours worked (up from 4 to 5), with that measure positive for the fourth consecutive report. Sample comments tended to highlight challenges with attracting new talent, highlighting the skills gap seen in the sector.

Meanwhile, manufacturers continue to be somewhat upbeat about the next six months. The forward-looking composite index edged down from 11 to 10, but it has now been positive each month since April. At least 40 percent of respondents expect sales and output to grow moving forward, which is somewhat promising. Yet, those completing the survey were also less hopeful for hiring, capital spending and export growth over the next six months, showing how cautious business leaders are right now, with expected growth remaining negative.

Federal Reserve Left Interest Rates Unchanged at its September Meeting

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The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) left short-term interest rates unchanged at the conclusion of its September 20–21 meeting, as expected. Indeed, in the latest NAM Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, 45.5 percent of respondents felt that the Federal Reserve would wait until its December 13–14 meeting, mirroring consensus expectations. (The FOMC does have another meeting scheduled for November 1–2, but they are unlikely to act just a few days before the U.S. General Election.) The press release sets up a possible rate hike later this year, with the following language: “The Committee judges that the case for an increase in the federal funds rate has strengthened but decided, for the time being, to wait for further evidence of continued progress toward its objectives.” Recent softness in a number of economic measures were enough for the FOMC to hit the pause button, at least for now. Read More


New Housing Starts Were Weaker in August

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The Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said that new housing starts were weaker in August, once again pulling back after passing the 1.2 million units threshold. New residential construction activity decreased from an annualized 1,212,000 units in July to 1,142,000 in August, a decline of 5.8 percent. As such, it stood in contrast to yesterday’s strong jump in home builder confidence from the National Association of Home Builders. That figure suggested that builders were quite optimistic about the next six months, spurred by modest economic growth and historically low mortgage rates. Along those line, I continue to expect 1.21 million housing units started by year’s end despite today’s disappointing numbers for August, particularly for single-family activity. Read More


Manufacturing Production Data for August Were Disappointing

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According to the Federal Reserve, manufacturing production fell by 0.4 percent in August. After two straight months of gains, this news was disappointing, even as it mirrored weaknesses found in other economic indicators in August. Moreover, manufacturing production has declined over the past 12 months, the first year-over-year decline since December. In addition, manufacturing capacity utilization decreased from 75.2 percent to 74.8 percent, a three-month low. As such, this report highlights the tremendous challenges in the sector. Nonetheless, manufacturers continue to be cautiously hopeful for increased activity over the coming months, as noted in our latest survey.

The current softness, though, means that policymakers need to focus more on priorities that will grow the economy and increase competitiveness. It also suggests that the Federal Reserve is likely to wait to raise rates. Along those lines, 45.5 percent of respondents to our survey felt that the Federal Open Market Committee would hike rates in December.

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NAM Outlook Survey shows improvements in expected growth, but lingering challenges

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In the latest NAM Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, sentiment appears to have stabilized after several quarters of declining assessments about the economic outlook, and the latest data appear to mostly back that assertion up, but with some caveats. Indeed, economic challenges continue in the sector, among them being concerns over rising health care costs and dampening perceived growth rates over the next 12 months despite some progress in this release. Large manufacturers were more upbeat about their company’s outlook this quarter, but small and medium-sized manufacturers experienced declines in their outlook in this survey. Overall, one could characterize manufacturers’ current economic outlook as cautiously encouraging, but still less-than-desired and highly varied by firm size and export sales growth expectations.

In this survey, 61.0 percent of manufacturers are either somewhat or very positive about their own company’s outlook, easing slightly from 61.7 percent who said the same thing in June. Yet, the outlook remained stronger than at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, marking some progress from earlier softness. At the same time, this marks the fifth consecutive quarter when positive responses about the outlook have fallen below the historic average of 73.0 percent. Read More

NFIB: Small Business Sentiment Was Mostly Stable in August

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The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said that sentiment among small business owners was mostly stable in August. The Small Business Optimism Index edged down from 94.6 in July to 94.4 in August, hovering around 94.5 for the third straight month and generally improving since achieving a two-year low in March (92.6). Nonetheless, small firms continue to be cautious in their economic outlook, with the headline number remaining below 100, the threshold which would suggest more-robust growth in the sector. Indeed, the underlying data points for August provided a mixed message even while the longer-term trend indicates a mild degree of progress. Read More


Manufacturing Job Openings Accelerated in July

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that manufacturing job openings accelerated in July for the second straight month. Postings in the sector jumped from 361,000 in June to 379,000 in July, even as openings remained below the all-time high of 397,000 observed in April. Through the first seven months of 2016, job openings have averaged 354,000 per month, up from 311,000 for 2015 as a whole. As such, we have continued to see relatively healthy gains in manufacturing job openings, which gives us optimism for faster hiring growth moving forward. In the July data, the increase in job openings stemmed from a pickup in activity for durable goods firms (up from 200,000 to 227,000); whereas, postings for nondurable goods entities (down from 160,000 to 152,000) declined for the third straight month. Read More


Manufacturing Employment Declined Again in August

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In another sign that manufacturing in the United States remains weaker-than-desired despite some signs of recent progress, employment in the sector fell once again in August. Manufacturers hired 14,000 fewer workers on net in August, and the job gains for the prior two months were revised down by a combined 10,000. All in all, manufacturing employment has fallen by 39,000 year-to-date through August, suggesting continuing cautiousness among manufacturing business leaders to add workers in light of lingering weaknesses in the global economy. It is hard not to be disappointed by these numbers, particularly when combined with yesterday’s ISM data, which found that overall manufacturing activity contracted for the first time since February.

Durable goods firms shed 16,000 workers in August, with nondurable goods manufacturers adding 2,000 jobs for the month. Of the 19 major sectors in manufacturing, all but four had reduced employment in August. The largest declines were seen in the transportation equipment (down 6,400, including a 5,600 decline for motor vehicles and parts), primary metals (down 2,500) and nonmetallic mineral products (down 1,400). In contrast, there were employment gains in August for food manufacturing (up 4,500), paper and paper products (up 700), machinery (up 500) and petroleum and coal products (up 400). Read More

Politics’ Corrosive Effect on Jobs Has Gone Too Far

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Lost in the news about today’s jobs numbers is politics’ corrosive effect on future labor reports and our nation’s standing in the world. Actions and debates underway in America today are erecting walls to long-term prosperity for millions of manufacturers. It’s wrong that this administration’s policies have caused health care costs to skyrocket, while policymakers use red tape to regulate many manufacturers out of business.

It’s unfortunate that critical energy infrastructure projects, such as the Dakota Access pipeline, are threatened, resulting in less energy independence and slower job growth. And it’s a failure of leadership when those seeking to serve us in elected office attack the very reasons we’re great, such as global trade and our free enterprise system.

Manufacturers—and all Americans—are looking for more than what we see on the campaign trail and by this administration. As we pause to celebrate Labor Day and the achievements of workers that made this country exceptional, policymakers should be reminded that we won’t settle for mediocrity. Americans deserve and expect leaders to partner with us to compete and win every day.


Manufacturing Construction Increased 3.9 Percent in July

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The Census Bureau said that private manufacturing construction spending increased 3.9 percent in July after softening in the prior three months. The value of construction put in place rose from $72.38 billion in June, a 17-month low, to $75.23 billion in July. Since achieving the all-time high of $82.15 billion in September 2015, construction activity in the manufacturing sector has pulled sharply lower. On a year-over-year basis, manufacturing construction spending has fallen 5.1 percent, down from $79.29 billion in July 2015. Yet, the longer-term 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 34.5 percent over the past 24 months. Read More