The Empire State Manufacturing Survey from the New York Federal Reserve Bank showed growth in manufacturing activity slowing considerably in October. The composite index of general business conditions declined from 27.5 in September to 6.2 in October, its lowest level in six months. Indeed, one –quarter of those taking the survey said that conditions had improved in October, down from 46.0 percent who said the same thing in September. As such, manufacturers in the New York Fed’s district were clearly more anxious this month, a disappointment after signs of relative strength in the sector from May to September.
A decrease in new orders (down from 16.9 to -1.7) helped to explain the change in sentiment. The percentage of respondents suggesting that sales had increased in the month dropped from 40.1 percent in September to 21.9 percent in October, a shift that produced the change in direction for the new orders index. Growth in shipments (down from 27.1 to 1.1) followed the same pattern, but with the percentage of firms saying that shipments had declined in the month jumping from 16.7 percent to 25.0 percent.
On the positive side, manufacturing activity has now expanded for 21 months, and businesses have reported rebounding levels of activity overall since earlier in the year. In addition, employment (up from 3.3 to 10.2) picked up somewhat in October. Pricing pressures (down from 23.9 to 11.4) have also eased.
Looking ahead six months, manufacturers in the New York Fed region remain mostly optimistic. While many of the forward-looking measures pulled back slightly in October, they still indicate expected strength in the outlook. For instance, 52.9 percent of respondents anticipate higher levels of new orders over the coming months, down from 57.1 percent in the prior survey. Nearly 24 percent expect to add more workers over the next six months, with 34.1 percent planning additional capital expenditures. These figures tend to indicate a brighter future for manufacturers, even if the current sales and shipments data are soft.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.