Here is the summary for this month’s Global Manufacturing Economic Update:
Headlines around the world have focused on the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine and the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian Airlines jetliner. Each of these events injects an element of uncertainty in the global dynamic picture. Indeed, so far in 2014, the global economy has not built on the strong momentum that we saw in the second half of 2013. A number of winter storms in the United States, financial struggles in the emerging markets and decelerating growth in China have combined to soften growth in recent months. Yet, we should not lose track of the longer-term trend, as markets in many of our largest trading partners have made significant progress over the course of the past year, with modest growth rates overall.
The JPMorgan Global Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) increased from 53.0 in January to 53.3 in February, its highest point since April 2011. New orders, exports and hiring rose. That said, this global measure might also be skewed higher by stronger performance in the United States, with the Markit U.S. Manufacturing PMI jumping from 53.7 to 57.1, its fastest pace in nearly three years. Sales and production both rebounded in February after weather dampened demand and hampered output and shipments in January. Elsewhere, there were signs that manufacturing activity eased somewhat in February in a number of areas, with a definite split between the developed nations and emerging markets. The HSBC Emerging Markets Index dropped from 51.4 to 51.1, influenced by contracting levels of activity in China, Russia and South Korea.
Speaking of China, its manufacturing PMI has now contracted for two straight months, and a number of economic indicators suggest that its economy has continued to decelerate. Industrial production has slowed from 10.4 percent in August to 8.6 percent in February, and fixed asset investment and retail sales have also eased significantly. These data points suggest that real GDP might fall below the 7.7 percent rate seen in the fourth quarter. Still, growth remains strong overall, even if these figures are well below the rates of growth that many businesses have become accustomed to. In other news, the Bank of China has worked to weaken its currency over the past month, with the Chinese yuan depreciating more than 2 percent since mid-February. The Chinese government has engineered this devaluation, it says, to help fend off speculators; yet, it is also important to note that the yuan has generally appreciated against the U.S. dollar since 2005. (See the attached graphic.)
Looking at our largest trading partners, 8 of the top 10 markets for U.S.-manufactured goods had expanding levels of manufacturing activity, with five countries experiencing slightly faster growth in February than in January. For example, the Canadian economy grew marginally faster in the fourth quarter, with real GDP up 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter. Manufacturing capacity utilization and shipments have also picked up recently, and the RBC Canadian Manufacturing PMI increased from 51.7 to 52.9, suggesting modest growth.
Meanwhile, in Europe, sentiment dipped somewhat in February, but the trend since last summer remains positive. New orders, exports and production eased a little for the month, but growth still remained healthy overall. Real GDP increased 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter, but growth is expected to rise to 1.1 percent for 2014 as a whole. While that indicates very slow growth, it is enough to provide a psychological boost to many businesses and consumers. The one issue that we do continue to worry about is possible disinflation, with still-weak demand keeping price growth at a minimum. Consumer prices have risen just 0.7 percent over the past year, for instance.
On the policy front, the Senate Finance Committee boasts a new chairman, as trade legislation from Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) to the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill (MTB) awaits action. Globally, Russia’s activities in Crimea and the Ukraine are prompting action by the Obama Administration and Congress, while trade talks in the Asia-Pacific and with Europe continue. Work has started on a bill to reauthorize the Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank before the end of September. Manufacturers are also seeking input on which products should be covered by new international negotiations to eliminate tariffs on environmental goods.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.