The NAM Manufacturing Outlook Index declined from 45.8 in September to 40.5 in the most recent survey, falling below the historical average for the second consecutive quarter. Nearly 60 percent of respondents were either somewhat or very positive about their own company’s outlook, a sharp decline from the 91.2 percent who said the same thing one year ago. Manufacturers continue to wrestle with global headwinds and lower commodity prices, which likely dampened enthusiasm in this report, especially regarding export expectations, with roughly 58 percent suggesting that their firms were negatively impacted by the global slowdown. Capital spending and hiring plans pulled back materially from the prior survey, which we also saw in the latest job openings numbers. On the positive side, manufacturing leaders anticipate 1.4 percent growth in sales and production over the next 12 months. While this pace remained well below the 4.5 percent pace observed in December 2014, it does suggest that activity remains positive, albeit less than desired.
The top business challenge was an unfavorable business climate, cited by 77.3 percent of manufacturing respondents. Indeed, manufacturers continue to be frustrated with the lack of comprehensive tax reform and with a perceived regulatory assault on their businesses. Rising health care and insurance costs were also a major concern, cited by 72.2 percent as a primary challenge. Manufacturers see health insurance costs increasing eight percent over the next 12 months. Small and medium-sized firms anticipate health insurance premiums to jump faster in the next year than large manufacturers do, with rates rising 8.6 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively.