Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
A perfectly timed winter storm at the end of last week coincided with news that cold weather has had a negative impact on consumer spending and manufacturing output. Manufacturing production declined 0.8 percent in January, ending five straight months of expanding activity. Poor weather conditions closed some facilities and hampered shipments. Capacity utilization also decreased, down from 76.7 percent in December to 76.0 percent in January. That was the lowest utilization level since July. Yet, to the extent that weather contributed to the fall in manufacturing output, I would expect production to rebound in the coming months. After all, manufacturing production increased 3.0 percent in the second half of 2013, and manufacturers continue to be mostly upbeat about demand for 2014.
Nonetheless, we saw the effects of the weather in other indicators released last week as well. Retail sales fell 0.4 percent in January, extending December’s 0.1 percent decline. Reduced auto sales were a major factor in this decrease, with motor vehicle purchases down 1.8 percent in December and 2.1 percent in January. If you exclude autos from the analysis, retail spending was unchanged.
Although the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters consumer sentiment measure was unchanged in February, respondents’ view of the current economy has slipped since December. One might surmise that weather impacted labor markets and incomes, lessening current confidence. However, Americans seem more optimistic about the future, with the expectations component rising from 71.2 in January to 73.0 in February.
There were signs that the U.S. economy’s recent improvements continue to bear fruit. Small business leaders have become more confident, with the National Federation of Independent Business’s Small Business Optimism Index edging higher for the third straight month, and January’s data also show an increased willingness to add workers. The net percentage planning to hire in the next three months rose to its highest level since September 2007. Along those lines, the number of manufacturing job postings increased from 283,000 in November to 297,000 in December. We have seen job openings in the sector recover from weaknesses midyear in 2013. Nonetheless, manufacturing net hires eased in December, and there was notable softness in the larger economy, both for new hires and job openings.
This week, we will get new numbers for the housing market and the latest data on manufacturing activity from a number of sources, including surveys from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks and Markit. The latter will report Flash Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) findings for the United States, China and the Eurozone. We will be looking for further evidence on the impact weather has had for manufacturers in the United States and for signs of improvement overseas. The Chinese PMI data had contracted in January’s report, but with output continuing to grow modestly. (For more information on worldwide trends, see the Global Manufacturing Economic Update, which was released on Friday.) Other highlights for the week include the latest data on consumer and producer prices, leading indicators and existing home sales.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.