The government reported that the U.S. economy grew by 2.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011, with manufacturers playing an integral role. Consumers and businesses replenishing their inventories were the largest contributors of real GDP for the quarter. In many ways, this number was not a surprise: other indicators also suggested an uptick in manufacturing activity in the months of November and December. Manufacturers are cautiously optimistic about future production, and the rebound is welcome news.
Yet, the GDP numbers also bring to mind challenges that might dampen growth in the coming months. It is unlikely, for instance, that we will see the same lift from inventories in the first quarter, and consumers have dipped into their savings to increase their purchases. At some point, this level of spending might ease so that consumers might pay off some of these debts. In addition, it is clear that the government sector will be a drag on growth for the foreseeable future – of which we were reminded when the Department of Defense announced budget cuts last week. Most pressing, though, is the constant reminder of Europe’s ills and the challenges that slowing global growth might have on our exports. Fitch Ratings downgraded several European nations’ credit ratings on Friday, following the lead of Standard & Poor’s from a few weeks ago.
These worries aside, most of the recent domestic economic indicators have been positive. Durable goods orders, for example, rose 3 percent in December, with strength in nondefense capital goods. This mirrors much-improved production, employment and investment data from the Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks (and for that matter, in most of the recent regional) surveys. The National Association of Business Economics (NABE), in its latest Industry Survey, observes these improvements, with more economists upgrading their assessments for growth this year. Sixty-five percent of respondents to the NABE survey expect for real GDP to grow at least by 2 percent in 2012. Similarly, the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank’s National Activity Index indicates that the risk of a recession seems to be lessening.
These growth estimates are in line with those from the Federal Reserve Board, which estimates real GDP growing between 2.2 and 2.7 percent this year. The Fed also expects the unemployment rate to remain elevated, improving slowly to a range of 8.2 to 8.5 percent in 2012 and to 6.7 to 7.6 percent by 2014. The Federal Open Market Committee, even as it cites improvements in the domestic economy, remains worried about high unemployment, a still-weak housing market and uncertainties related to European sovereign debt. It stated last week that it now plans to keep interest rates at “exceptionally low” levels through late 2014 – an extension from its earlier intentions of doing so through mid-2013. With these moves, the Fed hopes that lower long-term rates spur more borrowing, both by homeowners and businesses.
This week, we will receive more data about production and employment, which will hopefully show continued growth in manufacturing in January. The Institute for Supply Management’s well-cited index of manufacturing activity will come out on Wednesday, and it is expected to be somewhat higher. On Thursday, new productivity data will be released, with manufacturing output per worker expected to continue to show strong growth. Finally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will unveil new employment data on Friday, which should show increased hiring among manufacturers in conjunction with recently increased production.
Chad Moutray is chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.