Richmond Fed: Manufacturers Reported Improved Activity in December, But Still Soft

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The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank reported improved activity in December, rebounding after three straight months of declines. The composite index of general business activity rose from -3 in November to 6 in December, its first positive reading since July. (The measure was zero in August.) As such, manufacturers in the district ended 2015 with better news, even as overall conditions remained relatively soft. The higher headline number stemmed largely from improvements in new orders (up from -6 to 8), capacity utilization (up from zero to 2), employment (up from zero to 12) and the average workweek (up from -3 to 7). At the same time, shipments (up from -2 to zero) and the backlog of orders (up from -16 to zero) stabilized for the month. Read More

Richmond Fed: Manufacturing Activity Declined for the Third Straight Month in November

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The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank said that manufacturing activity declined for the third straight month in November, highlighting recent challenges in the sector in the district. The composite index of general business activity declined from -1 in October to -3 in November. Manufacturers reported reduced growth in new orders (down from zero to -6), shipments (up from -4 to -2) and the average workweek (down from -5 to -3). Note that the pace of decline eased for both shipments and the workweek, and similarly, capacity utilization (up from -14 to zero) stabilized after falling sharply the month before. At the same time, employment continued to pull back from modest gains in prior months. Hiring (down from 3 to zero) stagnated in November, with wage growth (down from 17 to 6) slowing. Read More

Personal Spending Picked Up Strongly in May

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The Bureau of Economic Analysis said that personal spending rose 0.9 percent in May, rebounding from a more-cautious 0.1 percent growth rate observed in April. It was the fastest monthly growth rate since August 2009. From the manufacturing perspective, this was welcome news, with spending on durable and nondurable goods up 2.2 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively. More importantly, it provides some encouragement that Americans might return to opening their wallets – something that there has been more hesitance to do so far this year. The year-over-year rate of personal spending in May, 3.6 percent, was the highest since December, up from 3.1 percent since in April. Read More

Richmond Fed: Manufacturing Activity Stagnated in February

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The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank said that manufacturing activity stagnated in February, ending 10 straight months of expansion in the district. The composite index of general business conditions declined from 6 in January to zero in February, its lowest level since contracting in March 2014. Indeed, many of the underlying measures slipped into negative territory in February. This included new orders (down from 4 to -2), shipments (down from 10 to -1), capacity utilization (down from 9 to -4) and the average workweek (down from 8 to -6). As such, manufacturers clearly pulled back in a number of areas for the month, likely due to global slowness, a stronger dollar and reduced commodity prices. Read More

Monday Economic Report – January 26, 2015

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

The European Central Bank (ECB) finally announced its long-awaited quantitative easing program on Thursday. The ECB will purchase 60 million euros in bonds each month until September 2016—totaling at least 1.1 trillion euros overall—in an attempt to stimulate growth. Depending on where the Eurozone economy stands pointing September 2016, the ECB might extend its purchasing beyond that point. The impact on the euro was almost immediate, with the euro exchanging for $1.1206 at Friday’s close, down from $1.3927 on March 17, the high point of 2014. This will complicate manufacturers’ ability to sell goods into Europe, something that was mentioned in the sample comments in the latest Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank’s monthly survey (see below). Read More

Monday Economic Report – January 20, 2015

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

Financial markets around the world continued to react to the softening global economic environment. In particular, foreign exchange markets were rocked by news that Switzerland would no longer support its cap on the franc, where that currency has been seen as a safe haven, particularly against the euro. Almost immediately, the Swiss franc appreciated sharply against the euro and other currencies. For its part, the euro has continued to depreciate against the U.S. dollar, with one euro selling for $1.1581 on Friday. This was down $1.3927 on March 17, the high point of 2014, representing an appreciation of more than 17 percent for the U.S. dollar against the euro. These developments could hurt the ability of manufacturers in the United States to grow exports. Read More

Monday Economic Report – January 12, 2015

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

The U.S. economy generated 2.95 million net new nonfarm payroll workers in 2014, the fastest annual pace since 1999. In addition, the unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent, its lowest level since June 2008. One might quibble that these figures overstate the overall health of the labor market, with part-time employment and unemployment still being a challenge. Indeed, the participation rate remains near 30-year lows. Still, the data suggest movement in the right direction. Manufacturers, for instance, hired an additional 15,500 workers on average each month in 2014, with 762,000 more employees since the end of 2009. The sector currently employs just more than 12.2 million workers. Therefore, manufacturing employment has increased at a decent pace of late, consistent with a mostly upbeat outlook. Read More

Monday Economic Report – November 24, 2014

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

Central banks around the world have acted recently in an attempt to lift a sagging global economy. On Friday, for instance, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced that it has begun purchasing asset-backed securities, finally beginning a quantitative easing program that some have long sought. Earlier in the day, ECB President Mario Draghi said that “we will do what we must” to spur economic growth. In addition, the People’s Bank of China surprised markets by cutting interest rates on Friday. These actions followed the Bank of Japan’s announcement on October 31 that it would increase the amount of its monthly asset purchases. Read More

Producer Prices for Final Demand Goods Declined for the Fourth Straight Month

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said that producer prices for final demand goods and services rose 0.2 percent in October. Yet, that gain stemmed mainly from increased costs for food (up 1.0 percent) and services (up 0.5 percent). Producer prices for final demand goods fell for the fourth straight month, down 0.4 percent. Falling energy costs (down 3.0 percent) continue to force the overall headline number lower. Indeed, prices for final demand energy goods have declined 5.9 percent since June, helping to decelerate overall inflationary pressures for producers.

At the same time, food prices rebounded from a softer September. Through the first 10 months of 2014, prices for final demand foods have risen 4.8 percent. In October, cooking oils, eggs, fruits, meats and vegetables accounted for the bulk of the monthly jump in food costs, with those same categories responsible for the year-to-date gains. Read More

Monday Economic Report – October 20, 2014

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

Global financial markets were highly volatile last week, with investors concerned about slower growth in Europe and an Ebola outbreak in the United States, among other factors. Indeed, industrial production in the Eurozone fell 1.8 percent in August, and activity was down largely across-the-board, most notably in Germany (down 4.3 percent), the Eurozone’s largest economy. Sluggish income and labor market growth in Europe has also pushed inflationary pressures lower, with year-over-year pricing changes of just 0.3 percent in September. Despite such worries, equity markets began to rebound on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) closing at 16380.41. Nonetheless, the DJIA remains 5.2 percent below its all-time high of 17279.74 on September 19.

Still, the U.S. economy has shown signs of resilience. Despite a softer August, manufacturing production increased 0.5 percent in September. Over the past 12 months, output in the sector has risen 3.7 percent. While this was slower than its July year-over-year pace, it reflects a nice improvement from the more sluggish 1.5 percent rate in January.

Moreover, surveys from the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) and the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks observed expanding activity levels in their latest reports. Each measure eased somewhat in October, but they were expansionary nonetheless. The weakest of these reports was the Empire State Manufacturing Survey, which observed a slight contraction in new orders. Yet, even there, respondents remained mostly optimistic about demand and output over the next six months. Along those lines, MAPI has a generally upbeat outlook, predicting that manufacturing production will increase by 3.4 percent in 2014 and 4.0 percent in 2015.

Housing starts exceeded 1 million again, increasing from an annualized 957,000 units in August to 1,017,000 in September. This continues a slow-but-steady trend upward, with an average of 978,111 so far in 2014 relative to an average of 930,000 for all of 2013. Still, there was relatively weak housing activity throughout much of the second half of last year and the first half of this year, and the latest data suggest that the sector has begun to stabilize somewhat. I continue to predict housing starts solidly in the 1.1 million unit range by the beginning of 2015. Homebuilder confidence has also reflected a positive outlook despite slipping a bit in October. Lower mortgage rates might spur more residential construction activity. According to Freddie Mac, average 30-year fixed mortgage rates fell to 3.97 percent this past week, their lowest level since June 2013.

Meanwhile, there was mixed news on the consumer front. On the positive side, consumer confidence reached a pre-recessionary high, according to the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters. This is a sign that improvements in the economy and lower gasoline prices have helped to lift Americans’ spirits. Yet, there are also lingering worries about income and labor market growth, and consumers remain somewhat cautious overall. Retail spending declined 0.3 percent in September, suggesting softness as we begin autumn. At the same time, year-over-year growth in retail sales was up 4.3 percent, a fairly decent rate, and the holiday season retail outlook looks pretty strong. We hope we will see better consumer spending data in the coming months.

This week, we will get additional insights regarding the health of the global economy. Markit will release Flash Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data for China, Japan, the Eurozone and the United States. The European data are expected to show continued weakness, but we will be watching for signs of progress in the Chinese manufacturing sector, which has decelerated in recent months. The Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank will also unveil its latest manufacturing survey, and it is expected to show continued expansion in its district. Beyond these surveys, we will learn about growth in consumer prices, and if they are similar to the producer price index data released last week, they will reflect easing in both food and energy costs. Other highlights this week include reports on existing and new home sales, leading indicators and state employment.

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

DJIA - oct2014