Tag: Federal Reserve Board

Federal Reserve Says That It Can Be “Patient” in Normalizing Rates

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) said that it can be “patient” in normalizing rates. The participants at its December 16–17 meeting cited progress in the overall economy, including “solid [labor market] gains and a lower unemployment rate.” Moreover, the Fed noted better consumer and business spending, with a moderate pace of economic growth overall. At the same time, the housing market’s recovery has been slow, and despite recent progress, labor markets remain underutilized. (continue reading…)

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Federal Reserve Sets Principles for its Exit Strategy

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) began laying out its framework for “normalizing” monetary policy moving forward. In particular, the Federal Reserve plans to end it quantitative easing program next month, with its purchases of long-term and mortgage-backed securities coming to a conclusion after its October meeting. Because of these purchases, the Fed’s balance sheet has now soared to over $4.4 trillion. Moving forward, the Fed’s assets will be reduced “in a gradual and predictable manner.” That does not mean, however, that the balance sheet will return to pre-crisis levels, as it is likely to remain at elevated levels for the foreseeable future. Still, the FOMC added the following language to its guidance, perhaps to allay worries from those who suggest that the Fed’s actions have distorted the marketplace:

The Committee intends that the Federal Reserve will, in the longer run, hold no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively, and that it will hold primarily Treasury securities, thereby minimizing the effect of Federal Reserve holdings on the allocation of credit across sectors of the economy.

Moreover, the Fed is expected to start raising short-term interest rates, which have effectively been zero since late 2008, beginning next year. The guessing game is when that will occur, whether in the first half or second half of 2015. The FOMC’s principles state that rates will begin to rise when “economic conditions and the economic outlook warrant” such an action. In the monetary policy statement issued at the conclusion of its September 16-17 meeting, the FOMC said that “it will take a balanced approach consistent with its longer-term goals of maximum employment and inflation of 2 percent” in deciding to normalize rates. Nonetheless, the statement continues to assert that the federal funds rate will be at its current low levels for a “considerable time after the asset purchase program ends.”

The decision to continue stimulating the economy for the foreseeable future despite progress in the economy was supported by most of the FOMC participants. Fed participants remain concerned about “slack” in the economy, particularly in labor markets. Yet, inflation hawks on the FOMC dissented with these actions. Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Richard W. Fisher felt that the pickup in economic growth warranted less accommodative policies; whereas, Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank President Charles I. Plosser would objected to the long time horizon for keeping short-term rates at their current levels.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Monday Economic Report – July 14, 2014

Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:

Just a few data releases came out last week, so our view of the economy changed little from the previous week. Manufacturers continue to wrap their heads around the fact that growth in the early months of 2014 has been more disappointing than originally anticipated, but at the same time, they are cautiously upbeat about the second half of the year. The sharp 2.9 percent drop in real GDP in the first quarter clearly altered perceptions about the economy, with business leaders struggling to try to figure out how that impacts their prospects for the rest of this year. For instance, was the drop in activity mostly due to severe weather, or were there larger doubts about the economy at play?

For their part, business economists have lowered their projections for real GDP growth in 2014, from 2.5 percent in June (before the GDP revision) to 1.6 percent. At the same time, real GDP is expected to bounce back in the second quarter, with a median growth estimate of 3.0 percent, according to the National Association for Business Economics (NABE). (My own projection would be somewhat higher than that, perhaps around 3.5 percent.) Moreover, almost 60 percent of economists surveyed felt that the odds of a recession in 2014 or 2015 were less than 10 percent. In addition, more than half of the NABE respondents felt that the Federal Reserve would start raising short-term interest rates in the first six months of 2015.

Along those lines, the minutes from the June 17–18 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting suggest that the Federal Reserve Board continues to also see improvements in the U.S. economy in the months ahead, even as sufficient “slack” remains in the labor market. While the Federal Reserve projects real GDP growth of 3.0 to 3.2 percent in 2015, it also intends to maintain its highly accommodative stance to monetary policy for the foreseeable future.

The FOMC reported plans to end its purchases of long-term and mortgage-backed securities in October, which mainly confirmed existing conventional wisdom, and it devoted a lot of discussion at its meeting to its exit strategy. The timing of the Federal Reserve’s move toward “normalization” in its policies has already become a focus of debate, with the guessing game now being when the increase in federal funds rate will begin. With pricing pressures accelerating of late, some will suggest that the Federal Reserve should move faster in its efforts to raise short-term rates, especially if core inflation starts to consistently exceed the stated FOMC goal of 2 percent on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) reported that small business confidence declined somewhat in June on a slightly weakened outlook. The underlying data paint a mixed picture of encouraging news and persistent challenges, with continuing doubts about momentum in the economy and frustration with the political climate. Nonetheless, the small business labor market appears to be improving, both in terms of current job openings and those intended for the next three months. Similarly, the latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data show the fastest pace of manufacturing job postings in six months, with an increase in net hiring in May. While hiring has picked up from softness earlier in the year, it continues to remain lower than what was observed in the second half of last year.

This week we will get a better sense of whether the recent pickup in manufacturing activity can be sustained as we move into the summer months. Industrial production is expected to reflect a modest gain in June, with expansion also predicted in surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks. With that said, the pace of sales and output growth is anticipated to ease slightly. Other highlights include the latest data on consumer sentiment, housing starts and permits, producer prices, retail sales and state employment.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Monday Economic Report – June 23, 2014

Here are the files for this week’s Monday Economic Report:

The Federal Reserve Bank downgraded its estimates of growth for 2014, with real GDP growth of 2.1 percent to 2.3 percent. This was down from its March projection of 2.8 percent to 3.0 percent, largely due to weaknesses in the first quarter. Nonetheless, the Federal Reserve still projects a pickup in activity during the second half of the year that will continue into 2015, with an unchanged outlook of 3.0 percent to 3.2 percent growth next year. The unemployment rate is anticipated to fall to 6.0 percent by year’s end and as low as 5.4 percent in 2015.

With that in mind, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) observed that “growth in economic activity has rebounded in recent months,” even as it cited continued slack in the labor market. The FOMC continued to taper its asset purchases, down from $45 billion per month to $35 billion, and it mostly reiterated its intent to keep a highly accommodative monetary policy stance for the foreseeable future. Short-term interest rates are expected to start rising at some point next year. Yet, there is renewed chatter among “inflation hawks” about increased pricing pressures of late. Core consumer prices, which exclude food and energy costs, rose 1.95 percent over the past 12 months, its fastest year-over-year pace in 19 months. While inflation still appears to be in check, the recent run-up in costs has fueled a debate about whether short-term rates might need to increase sooner than conventional wisdom might suggest.

For manufacturers, activity continues to recover from winter-related softness at the beginning of the year. Manufacturing production has risen 2.8 percent since January’s decline, with 3.6 percent growth over the past 12 months. Capacity utilization for the sector increased to 77.0 percent in May, its highest level since March 2008. Similarly, manufacturers in the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve districts reported strong growth in their respective June surveys. More importantly, respondents were mostly optimistic about future activity. More than half of those taking each survey said they anticipate increased new orders over the next six months. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve report also noted that 73.9 percent of its manufacturers predicted increased production in the second half of this year, with nearly 48 percent forecasting output growth of more than 4 percent.

Meanwhile, the housing market has provided mixed progress so far this year, even as we remain cautiously optimistic about future months. New housing starts decreased from an annualized 1,071,000 units in May to 1,001,000 in June. Despite the decline, it was the second straight month that starts have exceeded 1 million units, and the underlying trend remains positive. April’s figure was an outlier, with the year-to-date average being 969,000. As such, we continue to make slow-but-steady progress. At the same time, housing permits also declined, but single-family permitting increased from 597,000 units at the annual rate to 619,000, the fastest pace since November. This could be a sign that residential construction will accelerate in the months ahead. I still believe we will reach 1.1 million housing starts by year’s end. Moreover, homebuilder confidence was also higher for the month.

This week, we will get additional data on the health of the housing and manufacturing sectors. The Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks will unveil their latest surveys, and Markit will release Flash Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data for China, Japan, the Eurozone and the United States. We hope they will continue to reflect rebounding activity in the United States, and analysts will be closely following the June Chinese PMI data to see if the sector expands for the first time in 2014. The other key number to watch will be the second revision of real GDP for the first quarter. The consensus estimate is for the decline in output to exceed 1.5 percent, worse than the 1.0 percent decrease in the first revision. Other highlights include new data on consumer confidence, durable goods orders and shipments, existing and new home sales and personal income and spending.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

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Monday Economic Report – May 27, 2014

Here is a summary of this week’s Monday Economic Report:

The Federal Reserve made little news at its April 29–30 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, mostly mirroring the observations and policy actions taken at its March meeting. Yet, the latest minutes do give us a glimpse of how the Federal Reserve sees the economy as well as its thinking about future policy actions. For instance, participants spent much time discussing “monetary policy normalization,” or the exit strategy from recent stimulative actions. With quantitative easing winding down by the fall and with short-term interest rates expected to rise sometime in 2015, the Federal Reserve has begun to contemplate “the combination of policy tools that might be used to accomplish those objectives.” Moreover, it stressed the need to communicate its plans effectively to the markets and the public well before taking any actions. In essence, including a discussion of normalization in the minutes was a first step in such communications.

Regarding economic trends, the Federal Reserve noted recent improvements in activity since winter storms wreaked havoc earlier in the year. It observed that “business contacts in many parts of the country were generally optimistic about economic prospects,” and there were signs of increased capital spending and hiring as well as stronger demand for loans. Indeed, the manufacturing surveys released last week tend to echo these sentiments. For instance, the Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) rose from 55.4 in April to 56.2 in May. The increase stemmed largely from higher production growth, with the output index up from 58.2 to 59.6, the fastest pace since February 2011. Likewise, the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank reported that manufacturing new orders and production have been much stronger since March, leading to a renewed desire to add more workers.

However, not all of the news out last week was positive. The Chicago Federal Reserve Bank’s National Activity Index (NAI) found that the U.S. economy grew below its historical average in April. The reduction in manufacturing production was a large factor in the NAI’s decrease for the month. Weaker industrial production numbers were also a drag on the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) in April. Despite this, the long-term trend for both of these measures is a relatively optimistic one. For instance, the overall headline figure for the LEI expanded in each of the past three months, with 2.9 percent growth in the past six months. This should bode well for future activity.

Housing was a positive contributor in April in each of the above reports; however, the residential market remains a challenge. Improvements in housing starts and permits boosted sentiment, and there were increases in both existing and new home sales in April. Still, the housing market remains weaker today than it was several months ago. Existing home sales, for example, have dropped 13.6 percent since peaking in November, and new single-family sales have declined 3.9 percent since January. Even with these challenges, we remain cautiously optimistic about the housing market for the coming months, but will watch it closely in light of higher mortgage rates on the horizon.

On the international front, the HSBC Flash China Manufacturing PMI has shown contracting activity levels for five straight months, with economic growth decelerating of late. The good news, however, was that there were signs of this beginning to stabilize in the May data, with new orders, exports and production shifting to slight gains for the month. The overall PMI figure remains just shy of being neutral, and even though downside risks to growth remain, perhaps we will begin to see some expansion again in the June data. Likewise, Japan’s economy appears to be stabilizing after the imposition of higher taxes in April, but manufacturing activity has now contracted for two straight months. Meanwhile, manufacturers in Europe continue to reflect improvements in demand and output relative to this time last year, but the Markit Flash Eurozone Manufacturing PMI declined from 53.4 in March to 52.5 in April, reflecting some easing in the most recent data.

This week, much of the focus will be on revisions to real GDP growth for the first quarter. The original estimate was for just 0.1 percent growth, with weather and weaker activity bringing the economy to a crawl. Forecasts for this revision reflect newer data produced since then and hinge on whether activity rebounded enough in March to warrant an increase. Other highlights include the latest data on consumer confidence, durable goods orders, personal income and spending and manufacturing surveys from the Dallas and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

new and existing home sales - may2014

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Monday Economic Report – May 12, 2014

Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:

In her testimony before the Joint Economic Committee last Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen discussed progress to date in the economy since the recession and touched on some of the weaknesses during the first quarter of this year. Specifically, she said the following:

Although real GDP growth is currently estimated to have paused in the first quarter of this year, I see that pause as mostly reflecting transitory factors, including the effects of the unusually cold and snowy winter weather. With the harsh winter behind us, many recent indicators suggest that a rebound in spending and production is already under way, putting the overall economy on track for solid growth in the current quarter. One cautionary note, though, is that readings on housing activity—a sector that has been recovering since 2011—have remained disappointing so far this year and will bear watching.

The Federal Reserve expects real GDP to grow 2.8 percent to 3.0 percent this year, and for that to happen, it would suggest a relatively strong rebound in activity in the coming months. This is particularly true given the stagnant growth in the first quarter. Nonetheless, the Federal Open Market Committee continues to worry about sufficient “slack” in the labor market, even with recent progress. Weak manufacturing job openings figures tend to support this view. Yellen testified that “a high degree of monetary accommodation remains warranted.” The Federal Reserve is expected to maintain historically low short-term interest rates for the foreseeable future, with rates starting to rise sometime in 2015. Regarding its asset purchasing program, it is anticipated to wind down by this autumn.

Consumers, meanwhile, remain hesitant to take on too much credit card debt, a deleveraging trend that we have seen throughout the economic recovery. While consumer credit outstanding rose 6.7 percent in March, the bulk of that increase stemmed from gains in nonrevolving loans. Nonrevolving credit, which includes auto and student loans, has increased 7.8 percent over the past 12 months. Yet, revolving credit, which includes credit cards and other credit lines, was up just 0.85 percent year-over-year. However, consumers are continuing to increase their spending, but they might be dipping into savings more to make these purchases, with the savings rate down to 3.8 percent in March. This was off from an average of 5.3 percent and 4.5 percent in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

On the trade front, manufactured goods exports have risen at a very slow 1.1 percent pace in the first quarter relative to the same time frame in 2013. This continues the deceleration in the growth rate for manufactured goods exports that we have seen over the past two years, with 2014 year-to-date growth down from last year’s 2.4 percent pace. On the positive side, exports of U.S.-manufactured goods to many of our largest trading partners rose in the first quarter of 2014. However, exports to our largest trading partner (Canada) remain soft, down 0.4 percent in the first three months of this year versus last year. We remain hopeful that exports will improve in the coming months. For more on international trends, see the latest Global Manufacturing Economic Update, which was released on Friday.

There will be a lot of new data out this week to digest. Several indicators will show the health of the manufacturing sector in the United States, including April readings on industrial production and new May surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks. They are expected to show modest pickups in demand and output, building on recent rebounds. The other key figure to watch—particularly with the attention given to it in Yellen’s testimony and in the media—will be housing starts. Consensus estimates for new residential construction reflect some easing from March’s 946,000 unit annualized pace, probably down to around 910,000 to 920,000. Other highlights this week include new data on consumer confidence, consumer and producer prices, retail sales, small business sentiment and state employment.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. 

top export markets growth YTD - may2014

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Monday Economic Report – April 21, 2014

Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:

The Federal Reserve Board’s April Beige Book brought new evidence that the moderate economic recovery is getting back on track as the impact of the harsh winter weather abates. Manufacturing improved in most of the Federal Reserve’s 12 districts, growing at a “steady pace” in New York, Atlanta, St. Louis and Dallas, and gaining “some momentum” in San Francisco. The transportation sector strengthened, with the outlook described as optimistic. Reports on both residential and commercial construction showed that the sector continues to improve, albeit slowly; this was consistent with the moderate pickup in housing starts, from 920,000 in February to 946,000 in March. Consumer spending increased in most districts, confirming that the resilience of the household sector remains a key driver of the recovery. The Beige Book also indicated that price and wage pressures remain limited. This supports the majority view of the Federal Open Market Committee that there is still sufficient slack in the labor market to warrant an accommodative monetary policy for some time.

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve’s Business Outlook Survey painted a similar picture, confirming a pickup in manufacturing activity following weather-related weakness the previous month, and with respondents optimistic that growth would continue over the coming months. Demand for manufactured goods rose, with the new orders index at +5.7 compared to February’s -5.2; shipments also increased. Employment levels were steady, but the survey recorded a more optimistic outlook here as well, with the percentage of firms expecting higher employment rising to 34 percent compared to February’s 27 percent. Just under half of firms polled expected higher capital spending this year compared to 2013, with one-fifth expecting a lower level. Firms not planning to increase capital spending cited low growth, low capacity utilization and limited need to replace capital and technology equipment. Overall, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve survey and the Beige Book confirm that the recovery is gaining more traction, but also suggest it will take longer for the pace of activity to accelerate in a more decisive manner.

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen underscored the benign inflation scenario in a speech at the Economic Club of New York—her second public speech since assuming the Federal Reserve’s leadership. Asked whether the Federal Reserve would be prepared to let inflation drift above 2 percent in order to provide additional support to the recovery, Yellen noted that the risks are still skewed toward inflation being too low, not too high, and the Federal Reserve’s challenge for the time being is to bring inflation up and closer to the 2 percent target. She also pointed out that this low inflation environment currently characterizes not just the United States, but other main advanced economies, notably Japan and Europe, where the European Central Bank is debating possible additional monetary stimulus. Yellen stressed, however, that the Federal Reserve is well aware that overshooting the inflation objective “can be very costly,” and will, therefore, tighten policy in a timely manner at a pace dictated by the improvement in activity and employment. Unwinding monetary stimulus at the right pace is essential to the recovery’s sustainability, and the Federal Reserve will keep striving to guide market expectations to minimize the risks of sudden adjustments in market interest rates during the transition.

Inflation, meanwhile, edged up in March, with the headline Consumer Price Index (CPI) rising to 1.5 percent year-over-year compared to 1.1 percent in February, driven by increases in the prices of food, natural gas and electricity, partially compensated by a drop in gasoline prices. Core CPI inflation, calculated by stripping out the more volatile energy and food components, rose to 1.7 percent year-over-year from February’s 1.6 percent. The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, however—the change in the Personal Consumption Expenditure Deflator Index—is significantly lower and stood at 0.9 percent in February (the March figure has not yet been released).

This week will allow us to take the pulse of global manufacturing, with the Markit Flash Manufacturing PMIs for the United States, China and the Eurozone. The reading for China will be followed especially closely, given that an intensification of China’s slowdown might have repercussions on global demand for commodities. The durable goods report will offer another important gauge of the pace of the recovery and the health of demand for manufacturing in the United States. Other highlights include new home sales and the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index.

Many thanks to General Electric Chief Economist Marco Annunziata for compiling this week’s Monday Economic Report.

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Federal Reserve Participants Focused on Slack in the Economy at their March FOMC Meeting

The Federal Reserve Board released the minutes of its March 18-19 Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. While we already had the statement from this meeting, the minutes allow us to know the inner deliberations of the Committee. The participants debated, for instance, the degree to which there was “slack” in the labor market, with some feeling that the reduced unemployment rate masked continuing weaknesses (e.g., low participation rate, high rates of underemployment and part-time employment) while others felt that some of these weaknesses mirrored larger demographic trends.

FOMC members also spent some time focusing on the impact of global events on the U.S. economy.  The recent deceleration in real GDP growth in China “had already put some downward pressure on world commodity prices, and a couple of participants observed that a larger-than-expected slowdown in economic growth in China could have adverse implications for global economic growth.” The participants also discussed the events of the Ukraine and the negative impact of possible geopolitical events.

One of the more controversial – in some circles – aspect of the March FOMC meeting was the dropping of the 6.5 percent target in its forward guidance. That target had been part of their guidance since the December 2012 FOMC meeting. There were discussions about replacing the 6.5 percent target with another number. (Narayana Kocherlakota, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, dissented from the final statement and later suggested that he felt the target should have been 5.5 percent.) In the end, the majority of participants voted to approve the switch from a “quantitative” to a “qualitative” target, which would be data dependent but still provide the FOMC with flexibility to act when it needed to.

The FOMC also voted to continue tapering its long-term and mortgage-backed security purchases from $65 billion each month to $55 billion each month. The minutes go on to say the following: “Members again judged that, if the economy continued to develop as anticipated, the Committee would likely reduce the pace of asset purchases in further measured steps at future meetings.”

In general, FOMC members wanted the public to know that it would maintain a highly accommodative stance on monetary policy for the foreseeable future. While tapering of long-term assets will continue at future meetings, short-term interest rates will stay near zero throughout 2014, and it is likely that they will not start to increase the federal funds rate until sometime in 2015.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.

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Business Economists Anticipate 2.8 Percent Growth in Real GDP in 2014

Economists with the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) expect real GDP growth of 2.8 percent in 2014, up from 2.5 percent predicted three months ago. This is true despite weather-related softness in January and February, with economists anticipating 1.9 percent growth in the first (or current) quarter. Respondents to the NABE Outlook Survey also predict 3.2 percent output growth for 2015, suggesting the U.S. economy will continue to accelerate into next year.

This is good news for manufacturers. Industrial production is expected to increase 3.2 percent and 3.4 percent in 2014 and 2015, respectively. This is mostly consistent with the positive outlook noting in the latest NAM/IndustryWeek survey. In terms of auto production, light vehicle sales should rise from an average of 15.5 million annualized units in 2013 to 16.0 million and 16.5 million units in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Meanwhile, housing starts are anticipated to grow to 1.07 million and 1.3 million this year and next.

A number of special questions focused on the Federal Reserve Board and monetary policy. Eighty percent of business economists expect the Fed’s quantitative easing program, with 57 percent anticipating the end of long-term asset purchases in the fourth quarter of 2014. In terms of short-term interest rates, the responses were more scattered, but more than half predict the federal funds rate to start to increase in 2015. Overall inflationary pressures are expected to stay under or at the Fed’s 2-percent goal, with consumer prices up 1.7 percent and 2.0 percent in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Those taking the survey were asked about the biggest threats to the economic expansion, and the top choice was rising interest rates, cited by 27 percent of responses. This was closely followed by the regulatory environment (14 percent), financial instability in emerging markets (14 percent), and federal fiscal gridlock (11 percent).

Labor market growth has slightly decelerated since the last survey, as we have seen in recent jobs numbers. Nonfarm payroll growth should average 188,000 per month in 2014, down from the average of 197,000 in 2013. In the December survey, respondents had predicted 197,000 for this year. In 2015, business economists predict an average of 205,000 additional nonfarm employees each month.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers. Note that he was one of the panelists for the NABE Outlook Survey.

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Monday Economic Report – March 24, 2014

Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:

For much of the past month, people have been questioning how much of the recent softness in the manufacturing sector was due to weather and how much stemmed from other factors. The data released last week support the view that it was largely weather related, with numerous winter storms keeping shoppers from the stores and closing factories temporarily. Fortunately, manufacturing activity has rebounded in the latest reports. For instance, manufacturing production increased 0.8 percent in February, nearly offsetting January’s 0.9 percent decline, with capacity utilization for the sector rising from 75.9 percent to 76.4 percent. Similar rebounds were seen in the March surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks, and more importantly, manufacturers continue to be mostly upbeat about new orders and shipments over the next six months.

In its monetary policy statement, the Federal Reserve Board’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) acknowledged the negative effects of “adverse weather conditions” on recent activity. It also provided the following evaluation of the current economic environment:

Labor market indicators were mixed but on balance showed further improvement. The unemployment rate, however, remains elevated. Household spending and business fixed investment continued to advance, while the recovery in the housing sector remained slow. Fiscal policy is restraining economic growth, although the extent of restraint is diminishing. Inflation has been running below the Committee’s longer-run objective, but longer-term inflation expectations have remained stable.

The biggest news from the FOMC’s statement was the change in its forward guidance, as expected, to no longer mention an unemployment rate target. Since its December 2012 meeting, the FOMC has said it would pursue a highly accommodative monetary policy until the unemployment rate hit 6.5 percent and/or long-term inflation consistently exceeded 2.0 percent. With unemployment falling, this put the Federal Reserve in a predicament because job growth continues to be a challenge, particularly for the long-term unemployed, and progress in the unemployment rate fails to acknowledge loforw participation rates and underemployment that exists in the labor market. For this reason, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Narayana Kocherlakota opposed the change in the Fed’s guidance, and he subsequently said that he wanted a 5.5 percent unemployment rate target.

In the end, however, short-term interest rates cannot hover around zero percent forever, particularly with the U.S. economy improving. The Federal Reserve now forecasts real GDP growth in 2014 of 2.8 percent to 3.0 percent, with the unemployment rate falling to 6.1 percent by year’s end. The FOMC continued to taper its long-term asset purchases, down from $65 billion each month to $55 billion, and short-term interest rates are now expected to start rising sometime in 2015. (This is true even with new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen’s suggestion that rates might begin to increase around six months after quantitative easing ends, a comment that spooked markets on Wednesday.)

Fortunately for the Federal Reserve, inflationary pressures remain minimal, allowing the FOMC to continue its stimulative measures for now. Consumer prices rose 0.1 percent in February, with core inflation increasing 1.6 percent over the past 12 months. Of course, higher interest rates could negatively impact spending, particularly for large consumer items and for business investments.

Along these lines, housing starts have stabilized a little, up from 905,000 annualized units in January to 907,000 in February, but still remain somewhat weak. On the positive side, housing permits—a proxy of future activity—exceeded 1 million for the first time since November, largely on gains in multifamily residential construction. Single-family permitting remained soft, however, and homebuilder sentiment continued to be down from where it was just a few months ago. In addition to weather challenges, National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Chief Economist David Crowe attributes the current weakness to “a shortage of buildable lots and skilled workers, rising materials prices and an extremely low inventory of new homes for sale.”

Today, we will get March Markit Flash Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data for the United States, China and Eurozone. In particular, economists will be looking to see if Chinese manufacturing activity continues to decelerate and if the slight easing in February’s data was a one-month phenomenon. (For more on international trends, see the latest Global Manufacturing Economic Update, which was released on Friday.) Other highlights this week include updates on consumer confidence, durable goods orders and shipments, GDP, manufacturing surveys from the Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks, personal income and spending and state employment.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.

fed funds rate - mar2014

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