Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
The labor market was disappointing in December, with just 74,000 nonfarm payroll workers added in the month. This was well below the consensus estimates of around 200,000 that was expected, and it somewhat undercuts the storyline that the U.S. economy was beginning to gain some momentum. However, it is important to not make too much of one month’s data, which might have been influenced by weather and other factors. Nonfarm payrolls growth averaged 214,000 in the prior four months (August to November), and there is some thinking that December’s hiring figures were a bit of an outlier. Indeed, the participation rate fell once again to 62.8 percent, matching what was seen in October, which was the lowest level since February 1978. As a result, the unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 6.7 percent.
Meanwhile, manufacturers added 9,000 net new workers in December, its fifth month of positive gains. From August to December, the sector has averaged 16,000 additional hires each month. In contrast, the average from March to July was a net decline of 8,000 per month. This is generally consistent with the pickup in manufacturing activity that we have seen in other economic indicators, even if the net job growth in December was down from October and November. Indeed, new factory orders rose 1.8 percent in November, and even with quite a bit of volatility in the data (mainly due to choppiness in transportation orders), year-to-date sales growth increased modestly, up 2.6 percent in the first 11 months of 2013.
The other big news of last week was the narrowing of the U.S. trade deficit from $39.33 billion in October to $34.25 billion in November. On the surface, this is a positive development, with the decline in the deficit coming largely from reduced petroleum imports. This decrease corresponded to lower petroleum costs, as the cost of West Texas Intermediate crude fell sharply during that time frame. In addition, goods exports rose to an all-time high, up from $135.61 billion to $137.01 billion.
Nonetheless, one constant that we saw in much of the data last year was the frustratingly slow pace of growth for manufactured goods exports—a finding that was still true in the latest report. The value of U.S.-manufactured goods exports for the first 11 months of 2013 increased just 2.0 percent over the same time period in 2012. As such, despite stabilization in many of our key markets, including China and Europe, slower growth in foreign demand has been a challenge for growing sales all of last year. We hope to see continued progress on the international front that will yield stronger export growth in 2014. (For more worldwide economic trends, see the most recent monthly issue of the Global Manufacturing Economic Update, which was released on Friday.)
This week will be a busier one for economic data. A number of reports will provide new insights on the current health of the manufacturing sector, with the biggest highlight being Friday’s industrial production data. It is expected that manufacturing output will continue to show signs of acceleration, extending the gains in October and November. In addition, we will get survey data from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks and the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI). Beyond those releases, other statistics of note to look for include the latest data on consumer and producer prices, consumer confidence, housing starts and permits, job openings, retail sales and small business optimism.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.