The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas said that manufacturing activity picked up in September. The composite index of general business activity increased from 7.1 in August to 10.8 in September, and in general, the data continue to show stronger growth since being nearly stagnant in February. In fact, the paces for production (up from 6.8 to 17.6), capacity utilization (up from 3.6 to 20.2) and shipments (up from 6.4 to 15.9) were all up strongly in September, which was encouraging.
At the same time, there were also measures that expanding at a less-robust pace. New orders (up from 2.2 to 7.5) rose modestly, but with somewhat less gusto than the production figures. Just over one-quarter of those taking the survey said that their sales had increased in September, with 18.4 percent noting declines and 55.7 percent saying that orders were unchanged. Along those lines, hiring (down from 11.1 to 10.6) and capital spending (down from 6.6 to 4.4) both eased slightly, even as they both continued to reflect modest expansion.
The sample comments tend to reflect this nuanced view of the current economic environment, noting both strengths and some challenges. For instance, a chemical manufacturer said, “Our increased business activity is based on orders placed this time last year. We see some softening, especially in demand from Europe and China, while the U.S. remains strong.” Other concerns include cautious consumer behavior and wage and price pressures. A food manufacturer noted, for example, “We remain concerned that our consumers remain under serious financial pressure.” Indeed, where we have seen pricing pressures this year, it has largely been in the food category, with higher costs for meats, eggs, dairy and produce.
Manufacturers in the Dallas Fed region were mostly positive in September about the next six months, albeit less so than in August. The forward-looking measure of business activity dropped from 18.7 to 12.1. With that said, over 40 percent of respondents expect higher levels of production, new orders, and shipments in the coming months, with nearly 30 percent planning to add new workers and 35.7 percent predicting increased capital spending. The one negative remains elevated pricing pressures, with 45.5 percent of those taking the survey seeing higher input costs over the next six months versus 9.1 predicted lower costs.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.