Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
The Federal Reserve Board’s Beige Book noted recent progress in the economy but also reported the negative impacts of weather in many of its districts. The Federal Reserve wrote, “The weather was cited to have caused utility outages, disrupted supply chains and production schedules and resulted in a slowing of sales to affected customers.” However, the slowdown in activity in these regions is temporary, and manufacturers across the country were generally “optimistic about the future and expect manufacturing activity to rise in the coming months.”
Economists have had to try to parse through the data to determine just how much of the recent softness has been due to the weather. This is not an easy task, but in my view, the various reports suggest the momentum we saw at the end of last year should return with warmer temperatures. The latest NAM/IndustryWeek Survey of Manufacturers, which will be released this morning, echoes this finding, with 86.1 percent of respondents being positive about their company’s outlook for the next 12 months, up from 78.1 percent three months ago. Sales, capital spending and hiring expectations were also higher; however, the smallest manufacturers continue to be less upbeat about the economy and their company’s future plans. The top business challenges were an unfavorable business climate due to taxes, regulations and government uncertainties (79.0 percent) and rising health care and insurance costs (77.1 percent), with the latter serving as a proxy for frustrations with the Affordable Care Act.
Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data released last week suggest that manufacturing sentiment has already begun to rebound from weather-related weaknesses of the month before. The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) measure rose from 51.3 in January to 53.2 in February, with a faster pace of new orders. On the negative side, production contracted for the first time since May, and manufacturing activity remains below December’s levels. Yet, the improvement in domestic sales was a step in the right direction. Along these lines, the Markit U.S. Manufacturing PMI reflected an even larger rebound, up from 53.7 to 57.1, on much stronger growth in output and sales. As such, these reports give us hope that the declines in new factory orders in both December and January, particularly in the auto sector, will turn around in the coming months.
On the labor front, nonfarm payrolls increased 175,000 in February, somewhat higher than anticipated and better than the 84,000 and 129,000 observed in December and January, respectively. Still, hiring remains below the 194,250 additional workers created each month in 2013, reflecting the easing that we have seen recently. Manufacturing employment has also grown more slowly over the past three months, with just 6,000 new hires in February. Nonetheless, manufacturers have added new workers on net in each of the past seven months, consistent with the rebound in activity since the beginning of the third quarter of last year. Once weather-related weaknesses go away, we hope to see hiring in the sector pick up once again. Elsewhere in the jobs report, the unemployment rate increased from 6.6 percent to 6.7 percent with a slight increase in the size of the labor force. Still, the participation rate remains at levels not seen since the late 1970s.
In our first look at international trade data for the new year, the U.S. trade deficit widened ever so slightly, up from $38.98 billion to $39.10 billion. There was a significant jump in the petroleum trade deficit for the month, with weather impacts more than likely increasing demand and prices for crude oil rising. Manufactured goods exports increased modestly, up 1.2 percent in January relative to the same month last year. While our goods exports were somewhat lower to Canada for the month, the data suggest slight increases in many of our other major trading partners. We remain hopeful that improvements in the global economic landscape will yield better manufactured goods exports growth than the 2.4 percent growth rate in 2013. At the same time, any expansion would build on last year’s $1.38 trillion in manufactured goods exports, an all-time high.
This week will be a slower one for economic releases. Highlights will be new data on consumer confidence, job openings, producer prices, retail sales and small business optimism.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.