Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
Manufacturing activity picked up somewhat in January, according to several reports that came out last week. The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) rose from 50.2 in December to 53.1 in January. Stronger sales and production data helped to lift this index higher, with export growth still lagging (but no longer declining). The data was mirrored in the latest surveys from ISM-Chicago and the Chicago and Dallas Federal Reserve Banks. New durable goods orders were also higher in December, mainly due to increased aircraft sales.
The sentiment surveys tended to show an uptick in hiring in January, which might be a gauge of future activity. However, for now at least, the data show that employment growth in the sector has been slow at best. The ADP payroll data suggest that manufacturing employment contracted in January, while the government report showed that manufacturers added just 4,000 workers during the month. It is hard to ignore the significant slowdown in hiring that took place among manufacturers during the second half of 2012, with worries about sales and the economic outlook taking a toll on hiring and investing. While the larger economy added roughly 180,000 workers on average each month last year—a figure which is decent, but still not strong enough to bring the unemployment rate down—manufacturers only gained 11,000 additional workers in the last six months of the year.
Much of the economic uncertainty was tied to the fiscal cliff negotiations, with upcoming debates on the budget and deficit still causing uncertainty for many manufacturers. With the debt ceiling conversation postponed until mid-May, all eyes will now focus on the across-the-board federal budget cuts scheduled for March 1 and the possibility of a government shutdown on March 27. The fiscal cliff’s impact can be seen in the economic data as well, with manufacturing activity falling and consumer and business confidence indicators plunging. Dividends rose sharply at the end of the year (up 34.3 percent in December), as companies tried to accelerate these payments in anticipation of higher dividend taxes. The result was a 2.6 percent rise in personal income, pushing the savings rate up to 6.5 percent, its highest level (albeit a temporary one) in nearly four years.
The Federal Reserve Board reported that the economy “paused” at the end of 2012, referencing both Hurricane Sandy and the political wrangling over the fiscal cliff. Beyond that, however, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) made little news. It continued the stimulative policies put in place in December, with new rotating members of the FOMC voting much like the old ones did. Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank President Esther L. George picked up the mantle of her fellow inflation hawks by being the lone dissenter.
This week is a much slower one on the data front. The key data to watch for will come on Thursday with new labor productivity numbers and on Friday with the latest international trade figures. The export data will be closely followed as it will be the first to show activity for all four quarters of 2012.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.