Here are the files for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
Several recent indicators have shown marked improvements in the U.S. economy and for manufacturing activity, particularly when compared to earlier in the year. These range from the NAM/IndustryWeek Survey of Manufacturers to increased levels of demand and output. Last week, for instance, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) reported that the pace of production (up from 64.5 to 64.6) was marginally higher in September, with the index exceeding 60—indicating strong growth—for four consecutive months. Likewise, the new orders index has measured 60 or higher for three straight months, even though it eased somewhat in September (down from 66.7 to 60.0). That was an encouraging sign, and it was consistent with a relatively upbeat outlook as noted by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE).
Yet, the headline ISM Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for manufacturing unexpectedly dropped from 59.0 to 56.6. The prior month’s reading had been a three-year high, making the deceleration in sentiment a bit of a disappointment. The drop stemmed from slower paces of growth for domestic sales, exports (down from 55.0 to 53.5) and employment (down from 58.1 to 54.6). Along those lines, manufacturers added just 4,000 net new workers in September, with August’s employment number revised lower to reflect a decline of 4,000 employees for the sector. As such, we have had two straight months of disappointing manufacturing jobs numbers, which stand in stark contrast to the stronger hiring rates seen prior to August. We can hope for healthier job gains in the coming months, which would be more consistent with the mostly optimistic tone seen in other measures.
Indeed, the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank’s manufacturing survey noted robust pickups in production, capacity utilization and shipments in September, and respondents continue to expect stronger activity levels over the next six months. In addition, factory shipments have risen 2.1 percent year-to-date through August, or 3.1 percent over the past 12 months. The corresponding data on new factory orders reflected a sharp decline in August, but that was the result of very strong nondefense aircraft sales in July. While new manufactured goods sales remained soft when excluding transportation orders, the underlying data also reflect gains made since the winter months. Moreover, manufacturers have been confident enough in their outlook to increase construction spending, which rose 1.5 percent in August, increasing for the fifth straight month. Year-over-year growth in manufacturing construction spending was an impressive 14.9 percent.
At the consumer level, personal spending rebounded in August after holding steading in July. Since winter-related declines in January, personal spending has risen 2.7 percent, with 4.1 percent growth year-over-year. Strength in durable goods purchases boosted the August consumption figure. Still, Americans remain anxious, particularly about labor and income growth. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index declined from 93.4 in August to 86.0 in September, a notable and sizable decrease especially after the index had been at its highest point since October 2007 in August. It is possible that geopolitical events have put the public on edge, dampening enthusiasm. (The same could probably be said of the ISM report discussed above.) We have similar concerns in comparable data from the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters, and the two releases support the notion that the consumer remains cautious despite recent improvements in sentiment.
Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit narrowed from $40.32 billion in July to $40.11 billion in August, its lowest level since January. In general, we have seen the trade deficit decline after peaking at $45.98 billion in April. Since then, goods exports have increased by $3.79 billion, and goods imports have declined by $1.99 billion, helping to explain the bulk of the shift over that four-month period. Much of that improvement can be explained by increased energy exports and reduced energy imports.
After a busy economic data release calendar last week, this week will be much lighter. The minutes of the September 16–17 Federal Open Market Committee meeting will be released on Wednesday, with market watchers looking for clues for when the Federal Reserve will start raising short-term rates. Other highlights include the latest data on consumer credit, job openings and wholesale trade.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.