Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
The U.S. economy added 142,000 nonfarm payroll workers in August, a disappointing figure given signs of a rebound in many other indicators lately. The consensus expectation had been for nonfarm payroll growth to exceed 200,000 jobs for the seventh consecutive month, as was observed in the estimates provided by ADP the day before. Manufacturing employment was flat for the month, which was also a disappointment. It ended a 12-month streak of job gains for the sector, a period in which manufacturers added 168,000 net new workers. Hopefully, the August jobs report was just a brief pause in what otherwise had been positive news on the labor front.
The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) purchasing managers’ index (PMI) data provides much encouragement that manufacturing activity is moving in the right direction heading into the autumn months. The headline PMI figure rose from 57.1 in July to 59.0 in August, its highest level since March 2011, and it reflected a robust recovery from weaknesses earlier in the year. Indeed, new orders and production expanded at healthy paces. These findings mirror the latest NAM/IndustryWeek Survey of Manufacturers, which is being released this morning, showing respondents mostly upbeat about their own company’s outlook, with sales, capital spending and hiring expectations at two-year highs. Indeed, 87.3 percent of those taking the survey were either somewhat or very positive in their outlook, up from 85.9 percent three months ago. The data are largely consistent with 3.1 percent growth in manufacturing production over the next two quarters.
Manufacturers spent 4.4 percent more on construction projects in July, also providing some reassuring news. The sector has devoted 23.9 percent more to construction projects over the past 12 months, an indication that the increase in demand and output observed over that time frame has resulted in a jump in new investments. Meanwhile, new factory orders data provided mixed news. While orders increased by a whopping 10.5 percent in July, much of that stemmed from highly volatile nondefense aircraft sales. Excluding transportation orders, new factory orders declined 0.8 percent for the month, a finding that we had noted in the earlier release of preliminary durable goods data. Still, factory orders excluding transportation have risen 2.7 percent over the past six months (since weather-related declines in January), which mostly mirrors the more positive data in other releases.
Looking at exports, the U.S. trade deficit narrowed ever-so-slightly in July, with an increase in goods exports marginally offsetting an increase in goods imports. Yet, manufactured goods exports have risen only slightly year-to-date, up just 0.8 percent so far in 2014 using non-seasonally adjusted data. On the other hand, these same figures show that exports to our top five exports markets were higher through the first seven months of this year relative to last year. Regardless, manufacturers hope that the pace of export growth accelerates, with sluggish sales frustrating business leaders and net export growth providing a drag on real GDP over the past two quarters.
This week, we will get new data on consumer confidence, job openings, retail sales and small business optimism. Markets will also continue to digest Friday’s employment numbers, trying to decipher if they were an aberration or a sign of larger weaknesses. In particular, this discussion centers on how the Federal Reserve will interpret such things, with a debate already ongoing as to when the Federal Open Market Committee will begin to increase short-term interest rates. Conventional wisdom holds that short-term interest rates will rise sometime in 2015, but whether that occurs earlier or later in the year is up for debate between those who are more hawkish or dovish on inflation. In the Beige Book, which was released last Wednesday, the Fed mostly observed progress in the economy in recent months, including in manufacturing. Yet, as long as the Fed continues to see “slack” in the labor market, it might be less willing to normalize rates.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.