Manufacturing Production Data for August Were Disappointing

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According to the Federal Reserve, manufacturing production fell by 0.4 percent in August. After two straight months of gains, this news was disappointing, even as it mirrored weaknesses found in other economic indicators in August. Moreover, manufacturing production has declined over the past 12 months, the first year-over-year decline since December. In addition, manufacturing capacity utilization decreased from 75.2 percent to 74.8 percent, a three-month low. As such, this report highlights the tremendous challenges in the sector. Nonetheless, manufacturers continue to be cautiously hopeful for increased activity over the coming months, as noted in our latest survey.

The current softness, though, means that policymakers need to focus more on priorities that will grow the economy and increase competitiveness. It also suggests that the Federal Reserve is likely to wait to raise rates. Along those lines, 45.5 percent of respondents to our survey felt that the Federal Open Market Committee would hike rates in December.

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Manufacturing Employment Declined Again in August

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In another sign that manufacturing in the United States remains weaker-than-desired despite some signs of recent progress, employment in the sector fell once again in August. Manufacturers hired 14,000 fewer workers on net in August, and the job gains for the prior two months were revised down by a combined 10,000. All in all, manufacturing employment has fallen by 39,000 year-to-date through August, suggesting continuing cautiousness among manufacturing business leaders to add workers in light of lingering weaknesses in the global economy. It is hard not to be disappointed by these numbers, particularly when combined with yesterday’s ISM data, which found that overall manufacturing activity contracted for the first time since February.

Durable goods firms shed 16,000 workers in August, with nondurable goods manufacturers adding 2,000 jobs for the month. Of the 19 major sectors in manufacturing, all but four had reduced employment in August. The largest declines were seen in the transportation equipment (down 6,400, including a 5,600 decline for motor vehicles and parts), primary metals (down 2,500) and nonmetallic mineral products (down 1,400). In contrast, there were employment gains in August for food manufacturing (up 4,500), paper and paper products (up 700), machinery (up 500) and petroleum and coal products (up 400). Read More

Federal Reserve Left Rates Unchanged in June, as Expected

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As expected, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) did not change short-term interest rates at its June 14–15 meeting. Prior to the release of disappointing employment numbers for May, the Federal Reserve had positioned itself to begin hiking rates at its June meeting, with two increases anticipated in 2016. (At least one participant predicted just one increase in the federal funds rate this year, according to the latest economic projections.) The jobs report shifted those expectations to either the July 26–27 or the September 20–21 FOMC meetings. My own forecast would be for the hike to come in July, subject to incoming data between now and then. Along those lines, the press release has the following to say about the timing of future moves:

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 longer run. However, the actual path of the federal funds rate will depend on the economic outlook as informed by incoming data.

In terms of the economy, FOMC participants said that “the pace of improvement in the labor market has slowed while growth in economic activity appears to have picked up.” On this latter point, they noted the declining unemployment rate and better retail spending data. With that said, the Federal Reserve officials see real GDP growing 2.0 percent in 2016, down from an outlook of 2.2 percent in March, and the unemployment rate was seen falling to 4.7 percent, which happens to be the current rate. In terms of inflation, the Fed predicts core price increases of 1.7 percent this year.


Producer Prices for Final Goods and Services Picked Up 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, extending the 0.2 percent gain seen in April. At the same time, the producer prices for final demand goods jumped 0.7 percent in May, its fastest pace in 12 months. Energy costs rose 2.8 percent in May on higher crude oil prices, which approached $50 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate crude by month’s end, levels not seen since July 2015. At the same time, food costs were up 0.3 percent, offsetting the 0.3 percent decline observed in the prior report. The rise in food prices in May for goods producers came largely from higher costs for chicken, eggs, fresh and dry vegetables, grains, oilseeds and pork. Despite the rises this month, food costs have trended lower over the past 12 months, down 2.7 percent, with energy prices off 14.2 percent year-over-year. Read More


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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