Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
Manufacturers contributed $2.14 trillion in value-added output in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to new real GDP data by industry from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. For the first time, the government is releasing this information on a quarterly basis, allowing us to get a better sense of which sectors have had the largest impacts to real GDP in any given quarter. After bottoming out at $1.69 trillion in the second quarter of 2009, manufacturers’ value-added output has bounced back. Overall, the manufacturing sector makes up 12.5 percent of real GDP and has made outsized contributions to output since the end of the recession. For instance, in 2013, manufacturers added 0.40 percentage points to the 1.9 percent growth rate in real GDP, or just more than 21 percent.
This week, we will get our first glimpse of real GDP growth for the first quarter of 2014. Winter storms and weak export sales are expected to take a toll, with consensus expectations around 1.5 percent. With weather-related softness abating as temperatures have started to warm up, we have seen a rebound in activity in many key manufacturing indicators in March, potentially boosting economic growth in the first quarter. I estimate real GDP growth of around 1.8 percent.
Several figures released last week support the notion that manufacturing has begun to recover from softness earlier in the year. For instance, the Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) reported that production in April was at its highest level since March 2011, with relatively strong growth in new orders. This was true despite some slight easing in the overall PMI figure. Likewise, manufacturing surveys from the Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks also found rebounds in activity, and respondents remain mostly optimistic about the next six months. In the Kansas City Federal Reserve report, nearly half of respondents anticipate increased orders, shipments and production in the coming months, and more than one-third plan to bring on new workers and to invest in more capital spending. New durable goods orders for March were also quite positive across the board, rising 2.6 percent for the month and a healthy 9.1 percent year-over-year.
Such news has helped to lift spirits. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) increased 0.8 percent in March, extending February’s 0.5 percent gain. This was the fastest pace since November, with better production data boosting the increase. In general, the index’s findings were supportive of a growing economy over the coming months. Americans, by and large, have also become more confident. The University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters reported that consumer sentiment rose to its highest point since July 2013, with its headline index rising from 80.0 in March to 84.1 in April. As such, it indicates that Americans’ attitudes have recovered slowly after falling during the government shutdown.
Still, it has not been all good news on the economic front. One area of concern was growth in manufacturing activity in China, which has now contracted for four straight months. Yet, the pace of the decline slowed, with the HSBC Flash China Manufacturing PMI up from 48.0 in March to 48.3 in April. The data largely mirrored the recent deceleration in other economic indicators, including China’s real GDP falling from an annualized 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013 to 7.4 percent in the first quarter of 2014. Despite the weaknesses, one could put a positive spin on the slightly better—but still contracting—levels of new orders and output. On the other hand, exports have now contracted in four of the past six months, negatively impacting overall manufacturing sentiment.
The other worry was sluggish housing growth. New single-family home sales plummeted, down 14.5 percent in March and off 13.3 percent year-over-year. Higher interest rates are likely a factor. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported significant declines in mortgage applications over the past year, largely for refinancings. At the same time, the number of new mortgages has also stalled. With new home sales down, the supply of new homes for sale has soared from 4.8 months in January to 6.0 months in March. Meanwhile, existing home sales have been soft all year.
In addition to real GDP, other economic highlights this week include new manufacturing surveys from the Institute for Supply Management and the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank and the latest data on construction spending, factory orders and personal income and spending. The Federal Reserve is expected to continue tapering, reducing its monthly purchases of long-term and mortgage-backed securities from $55 billion to $45 billion. On Friday, we will get new jobs numbers for April, with modest gains in manufacturing employment expected and nonfarm payrolls expanding around 200,000.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.