Here is the summary of this week’s Monday Economic Report:
With the U.S. economy growing just 0.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014, analysts need to ask themselves whether this was just an aberration—a function largely of winter-related slowness—or a sign of larger weaknesses. The preliminary real GDP data showed drags from business investment, net exports and the government. Consumer spending on services was the biggest positive, and durable and nondurable goods purchases were up marginally for the quarter. My view is that real GDP probably will be revised higher in future updates, particularly with other data showing rebounding activity in March.
Fortunately, other recent economic reports show the economy recovering from difficulties earlier in the year. Consumer spending picked up strongly in March, with pent-up demand for durable goods, such as automobiles, pushing up overall purchases. Along those lines, manufacturing construction spending and new factory orders were also higher in March, with the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank’s monthly survey mirroring other regional reports showing an increase in respondents’ outlook.
Nationally, manufacturing confidence appears to be rising, with the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) rising from 53.7 in March to 54.9 in April, its highest point so far in 2014. Still, activity remains below the torrid pace at the end of last year. The ISM’s PMI values averaged 56.3 in the second half of 2013, with new orders and output averaging 61.8 and 62.6, respectively. As such, there is still room for improvement. One of the brighter spots in the ISM release was the increased pace of hiring, with the employment index jumping from 51.1 to 54.7. This suggested that more manufacturers were adding workers, which was progress from the slower rate the month before.
In fact, the sector has hired more than 13,000 additional employees on average each month since August, when manufacturing demand and output began gaining momentum last year. Since the end of 2009, manufacturers have created 623,000 new jobs, with 12.1 million workers total in April. In the larger economy, nonfarm payrolls increased by 288,000 for the month—well above the consensus estimate of around 220,000—and the unemployment rate fell sharply from 6.7 percent in March to 6.3 percent in April. Despite this progress, the unemployment rate’s decline was largely due to a significant drop in the labor force size. The participation rate returned to where it was in December, matching its lowest point since February 1978.
From its perspective, the Federal Reserve felt that the economy was getting better; yet, it continues to worry about elevated unemployment rates, reduced business investment and fiscal restraints. For that reason, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) reported that it would keep its highly accommodative stance for the foreseeable future, with short-term rates effectively zero until likely sometime in 2015. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve continued to taper its long-term and mortgage-backed securities purchases from $55 billion per month to $45 billion, as expected. On the positive side, inflationary pressures remain minimal, with the personal consumption expenditure deflator up just 1.1 percent year-over-year and below the FOMC’s stated target of 2 percent.
This week, the highlight will come tomorrow with the release of new international trade numbers. In the first two months of 2014, manufactured goods exports were below their pace of 2013. It will be important to see if the picture improves in the March data. Beyond trade, other highlights to watch include the latest reports on consumer credit, job openings, productivity and wholesale trade.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.