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.