The U.S. Economy Had Sluggish Start to 2016

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The Bureau of Economic Analysis said that the U.S. economy grew just 0.5 percent in the first quarter of 2016, signifying a sluggish start to the year. This was slightly below the consensus estimate of real GDP growth of 0.7 percent, and it was down from 1.4 percent growth in the fourth quarter of 2015. In many ways, the data for the first quarter mirrored the trends seen in the prior report, with drags on growth coming from fixed business investment and net exports. Consumer spending on goods was the difference-maker in this release.  While personal consumption continued to be one of the brighter spots, adding 1.27 percentage points to headline GDP growth, that increase stemmed almost entirely from spending on services. The gain from goods spending was negligible – adding just 0.03 percentage points. This finding is consistent with the disappointing retail sales numbers observed year-to-date, particularly for durable goods, and it was another sign that Americans have pulled back on their purchases as a result of anxieties in the economic outlook. Read More

Federal Reserve Leaves Rates Unchanged, as Expected, Signaling Caution Moving Forward

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The Federal Reserve left short-term interest rates unchanged, as expected, at the conclusion of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting. In its statement, the FOMC acknowledged that “economic activity appears to have slowed” despite progress in some areas, most notably in the labor market. As such, it left the federal funds rate at the ¼ to ½ percent target range that it established at its December meeting. More importantly, participants appear to not be a hurry to raise rate, expressing some caution moving forward. They write, “The Committee expects that economic conditions will evolve in a manner that will warrant only gradual increases in the federal funds rate; the federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the long run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.”

At their prior meeting, the economic projections signaled two interest rate increases in 2016, each by 25 basis points. By itself, that was an admission that economic conditions no longer warranted four rate increases this year – the stated goal coming into 2016. The consensus among most economist had been for the FOMC to hike interest rates again at its June 14–15 meeting. That could still happen, but that will hinge on better data coming in between now and then. Hopefully, improvements in the broader economy would include manufacturing, which continues to lag other segments. With that said, this press release would seem to indicate that a June rate increase just became less likely.

Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank President Esther L. George dissented in her vote. She has established herself as an inflation hawk, and she would have preferred for the FOMC to have raised the federal funds rate to ½ to ¾ percent at this meeting.

The Federal Reserve Kept Interest Rates Unchanged, Lowering its Economic Projections Slightly

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The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) chose to keep short-term interest rates unchanged, as expected, at its March 15–16 meeting. Coming into 2016, conventional wisdom held that the Federal Reserve would raise the federal funds rate as much as four times this year, building on the 25 basis point increase made at its December 15–16 meeting. Yet, in the interim, the global economic environment has been highly volatile, with softer-than-desired economic activity and lingering outlook worries among businesses. (See, for instance, the most recent NAM Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, which was released last week.) In the FOMC’s statement, participants acknowledged these challenges, but also noted that “economic activity has been expanding at a modest pace.”

With that said, the Federal Reserve also released its economic projections, and these data make it clear that FOMC participants had slightly downgraded their forecasts for growth for 2016 and 2017. The Fed now predicts 2.2 percent real GDP growth in 2016, down from 2.4 percent in December, and 2.1 percent growth for 2017, down from 2.2 percent. They also expect the unemployment rate to fall to 4.7 percent in 2016 and to 4.6 percent in 2017. In addition, core inflation is seen remaining below 2.0 percent. Yet, the Fed also expects inflationary pressures to pick up from currently low levels as the effect of energy price declines and the labor market improves further.

From a financial markets perspective, the economic projections also provide a signal about the number of future rate increases. Participants now see the effective federal funds rate rising to 0.9 percent by year’s end, down from 1.4 percent in December. Given that the current target range for the federal funds rate is between 0.25 and 0.50 percent, this would suggest two more increases in 2016, instead of four as predicted in December. As such, this keeps a rate hike at either the April 26-27 or June 14–15 meetings on the table, with the latter being more likely. The Federal Reserve will be looking for broader progress in the U.S. economic data, and hopefully, this includes improved manufacturing activity. Read More


Manufacturing Production Grew for the Second Straight Month in February

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Manufacturing production grew 0.2 percent in February, extending the 0.5 percent gain seen in January. As such, output in the sector has begun 2016 on a somewhat stronger note than it ended 2015. To be clear, manufacturing activity remains weaker than we would prefer, particularly given the difficulties in growing export demand and with soft commodity prices. Still, manufacturing output has increased 1.8 percent over the past 12 months, up from 0.5 percent in December and 1.2 percent in January. With that said, production growth slowed considerably last year, with the year-over-year rate of manufacturing output down from 4.3 percent in January 2015. Capacity utilization for manufacturers was unchanged at 76.1 percent in February. Read More


Manufacturing Employment Pulled Back Again in February

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The economy remains a mixed bag for manufacturers, with job numbers drawing back for the second month this year.  The numbers indicate obstacles still stand in the way of unleashing the economic potential of the manufacturing sector.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that manufacturing employment declined by 16,000 in February, somewhat offsetting the 23,000-worker increase observed in January.  In addition, data revisions subtracted another 13,000 workers from the December and January original estimates. As such, manufacturers have added just 7,000 net new workers year-to-date through the first two months of 2016, a sluggish pace that speaks to the ongoing challenges seen in the sector from the strong U.S. dollar and falling commodity prices. Read More

Monday Economic Report – December 14, 2015

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NAM manufacturing outlook index - dec2015The NAM Manufacturing Outlook Index declined from 45.8 in September to 40.5 in the most recent survey, falling below the historical average for the second consecutive quarter. Nearly 60 percent of respondents were either somewhat or very positive about their own company’s outlook, a sharp decline from the 91.2 percent who said the same thing one year ago. Manufacturers continue to wrestle with global headwinds and lower commodity prices, which likely dampened enthusiasm in this report, especially regarding export expectations, with roughly 58 percent suggesting that their firms were negatively impacted by the global slowdown. Capital spending and hiring plans pulled back materially from the prior survey, which we also saw in the latest job openings numbers. On the positive side, manufacturing leaders anticipate 1.4 percent growth in sales and production over the next 12 months. While this pace remained well below the 4.5 percent pace observed in December 2014, it does suggest that activity remains positive, albeit less than desired.

The top business challenge was an unfavorable business climate, cited by 77.3 percent of manufacturing respondents. Indeed, manufacturers continue to be frustrated with the lack of comprehensive tax reform and with a perceived regulatory assault on their businesses. Rising health care and insurance costs were also a major concern, cited by 72.2 percent as a primary challenge. Manufacturers see health insurance costs increasing eight percent over the next 12 months. Small and medium-sized firms anticipate health insurance premiums to jump faster in the next year than large manufacturers do, with rates rising 8.6 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively.
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Manufacturing Production Has Declined in Three of the Past Four Months

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Manufacturing production declined 0.5 percent in August, falling back after rebounding strongly in July. Overall, these data continue to show the sector struggling with a number of economic headwinds, with output down in three of the past four months. Capacity utilization for manufacturers increased from 76.2 percent to 75.8 percent. On a year-over-year basis, manufacturing production increased 1.4 percent in August, down from 1.5 percent in July. This represented a sharp deceleration in output from the 4.3 year-over-year pace observed in January. Read More

Second Quarter Real GDP Revised Sharply Higher, up from 2.3 Percent to 3.7 Percent Growth

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The Bureau of Economic Analysis revised its estimate of growth in the U.S. in the second quarter sharply higher. Real GDP increased 3.7 percent in the second quarter, significantly higher than the 2.3 percent original estimate released last month. This was slightly above the consensus estimate of 3.2 percent, and the improvement in economic growth for the quarter was attributed to upward revisions in many categories, but particularly for inventory spending. Despite the better headline figure, the underlying trends were largely the same, including rebounds in consumer and business spending and with net exports recovering a bit after serving as a drag in the prior two quarters.  Read More

Producer Prices Were Higher in June, Extending the Gains Seen in May

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics said that producer prices for final demand goods and services rose 0.4 percent in June, extending the 0.5 percent increase seen in May. The gains for the goods sector were even stronger. Indeed, producer prices for final demand goods jumped 1.3 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively, in May and June, with each month spurred higher by rising energy and food costs. On the energy front, energy goods were 5.9 percent and 2.4 percent more expensive in those two months, respectively. This was consistent with the rise in West Texas intermediate crude oil prices, up from an average of $54.45 per barrel in April to $59.82 a barrel in June. At the same time, final demand energy goods costs remain 17.9 percent lower today than 12 months ago. Read More

Monday Economic Report – June 22, 2015

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

Last week, one media outlet reported that manufacturing has been in a “technical recession” for the past six months. I am more hesitant to use the R-word to describe the sector’s performance year-to-date, and in my view, this description somewhat overstates the significance of broader market trends, particularly for expectations moving forward. At the same time, manufacturing production has declined since late last year, as illustrated in the graphic below. A number of significant economic headwinds have reduced output in four of the past six months, reducing the year-over-year pace of growth in the sector from 4.5 percent in November to 1.8 percent in May. Capacity utilization has also declined for five consecutive months, down from 78.1 percent in December to 77.0 percent in May. Read More