Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
Manufacturing production rose 2.6 percent in 2013, slowing from the 3.5 percent and 3.2 percent growth rate experienced in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Yet, the lower 2013 figure stemmed largely from weaknesses in the first half of the year, with manufacturing output rising an annualized 4.2 percent in the second half. As such, the sector ended the year on a strong note, with a pickup in demand and cautious optimism for 2014. Indeed, a number of other reports reached the same conclusion. Surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks and from the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) both observed expanding levels of activity in their latest releases. Respondents to these surveys tended to be mostly upbeat about new orders, shipments, exports and hiring over the coming months—which is definitely good news.
Over the past couple years, the rebound in the housing sector has been one of the bright spots in the U.S. economy. Housing starts were lower in December, but it seems the November data were a bit of an outlier. Absent that soaring figure, new residential construction was generally higher to end 2013, particularly for single-family units. New single-family starts increased 7.6 percent year-over-year. Housing permits also eased slightly in December but increased 4.6 percent from the year before. The reduction in housing activity could have been due to severe winter storms, with somewhat higher borrowing costs as another possible contributing factor. The average 30-year mortgage rose from 4.29 percent in the week of November 27 to 4.48 percent in the week of December 26, according to Freddie Mac. Nonetheless, this still historically low rate helps to explain the generally upbeat assessment of home builders.
Meanwhile, the pace of retail sales slowed in December, with reduced auto sales dragging the overall figure lower. Still, motor vehicle sales increased 5.9 percent in 2013, making it one of the stronger components of consumer spending growth. Excluding autos, retail sales would have risen by 0.7 percent last month, suggesting broader strength than the headline figure implies. On a year-over-year basis, total retail spending increased 4.1 percent, a modest pace that marks the slowest since 2009.
The two measures of sentiment moved in opposite directions. Preliminary data from the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters on consumer confidence was surprisingly lower for the month, down from 82.5 in December to 80.4 in January. The December data has noted a recovery in perceptions about the economy after falling in the wake of the government shutdown, and the expectation had been for January’s data to extend those gains. With a reduction in sentiment instead, this suggests that the public remains somewhat anxious about economic conditions. At the same time, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) noted an increase in optimism for the second straight month. Underneath the main reading, however, the data were mixed, with more small business owners calling it a “good time to expand” but with sales and earnings remaining subpar.
In terms of news events, outgoing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Brookings Institution that provided his take on the lessons learned from the financial crisis. This “exit interview”—as it has been widely dubbed—was mostly a valedictory address defending the Fed’s monetary actions to help stimulate growth in the economy. Coincidently, Bernanke gave it on the same day that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that core consumer inflation had risen by just 1.7 percent over the past year. A similar conclusion on producer prices had been released the day before, and in each case, the data suggested that pricing pressures were increasing within an acceptable range, at least for now, according to the Fed’s stated targets.
There will only be a handful of economic data releases this week. From the manufacturing perspective, the highlights will come on Thursday. Markit will provide “flash” estimates for its purchasing managers’ index (PMI) reports for the United States, the Eurozone, and China. In addition, the Kansas City Fed will discuss the latest results of its regional manufacturing survey. In each instance, the expectation will be for manufacturers to note continued growth, building on recent gains. Other data releases include updates on the leading economic index and existing home sales.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.