Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
There are numerous signs that global economic growth is lower than expected in 2014, with some disappointing data coming in last week. For instance, industrial production numbers were weaker in a number of countries, including slower industrial growth in China in April relative to just a few months ago and falling output in March in the Eurozone. Europe also learned that real GDP rose at the very slow pace of 0.2 percent in the first quarter, prompting new worries about sluggish income and labor market growth on the continent. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Federal Reserve reported that manufacturing production fell 0.4 percent in April. This followed relatively strong rebounds in February and March from winter-related softness in December and January. Still, output continues to reflect modest gains year-over-year, particularly for durable goods.
Despite April’s decline in industrial production, other data suggest that manufacturing activity in the United States appears to be recovering from earlier weaknesses. Manufacturing surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks both show relatively strong expansions in their regions, even as the Philly Fed report eased a bit in May from April. New orders, shipments and employment reflected continuing expansion from the previous survey. More importantly, manufacturers in each district remained mostly upbeat about the next six months, with more than half of the respondents in both surveys anticipating new orders to increase moving forward. For their part, small business owners were also more optimistic, with the National Federation of Independent Business’s (NFIB) key index rising to its highest level since October 2007.
At first glance, the housing data released last week were also quite positive. Housing starts exceeded 1 million again for the first time this year, up from an annualized 947,000 units in March to 1,072,000 in April. New residential permitting was also higher. Yet, the bulk of April’s increases in both measures were primarily due to the more volatile multifamily housing segment. Single-family starts and permits were only marginally higher, but remain below the recent peaks last November. As such, there is perhaps more softness in the market than the headline figure indicated. (We will get existing and new home sales figures this week.) Indeed, homebuilder confidence fell to its lowest point in 12 months, with consumer anxieties cited as a concern. On the positive side, builders were somewhat more hopeful about future activity.
Consumer data were mixed. Retail sales increased 0.1 percent in April, extending the strong gains from February and March. Auto sales comprised much of April’s gains, with retail spending outside of motor vehicles unchanged from March. As such, consumers appeared to be somewhat cautious in April. This showed up in the latest consumer confidence data as well. The University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters reported that consumer sentiment edged slightly lower in May in its preliminary data, with Americans more concerned about current economic conditions. In terms of prices, consumer inflation has started to pick up slightly, led by higher food costs, but core pricing pressures remain below 2 percent at the annual rate, at least for now. A similar pattern was observed for producer prices.
This week, we will get more news on the health of the manufacturing sector worldwide, with flash Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data from Markit for the United States, Europe, China and Japan. The Kansas City Federal Reserve will also release its latest sentiment survey. Finally, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) minutes from its April 29–30 meeting will be released, providing some insights about current Federal Reserve debates. However, that meeting hardly produced any surprises, with the FOMC continuing to taper its asset purchases and the Federal Reserve’s forward guidance still pointing to short-term rate increases sometime next year.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.