The Federal Reserve Board’s Beige Book, released last week, suggested that the U.S. economy was expanding at a modest to moderate pace nationally. Other data were even more encouraging, including strong numbers for economic growth, manufacturing activity and overall hiring. For instance, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that real GDP increased by 3.6 percent during the third quarter, up from its previous estimate of 2.8 percent. This was the fastest pace of growth since the first quarter of 2012. One drawback in the report was that much of the increase stemmed from the restocking of inventories—something that will likely not be replicated in the current quarter. Yet, consumer and business spending also made significant contributions to the economy, with relatively healthy gains for goods exports and improvements in the financial positions of state and local governments.
The stronger domestic and global economy has helped buoy the manufacturing sector, with stronger sales and output seen since the beginning of the third quarter. The Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) has soared to 57.3, its highest point since April 2011. This was the fourth straight month with the new orders index greater than 60.0, indicating very robust growth in sales. More importantly, export orders also had healthy increases, up from 57.0 to 59.5. With manufactured goods exports up only 1.9 percent year-to-date, the fact that our overseas sales were beginning to pick up was welcome news. Overall, the ISM report—while much more optimistic than other sentiment surveys—mirrors the mostly upbeat outlook within the sector. Yet, sample comments also note downside risks associated with government uncertainty—a lingering issue that has dampened demand on and off over the past few years.
Friday’s jobs numbers were another boost for the U.S. economy. Manufacturers added 27,000 net new workers in November, the most in any month since March 2012. Moreover, it appears that businesses have begun to accelerate their hiring in recent months. The average monthly job gain over the past four months (August to November) was 16,500, a definite sign of progress from the average decline of 8,000 in the five months prior to that (March to July). A similar pattern exists for nonfarm payroll workers, with the average over the past four months jumping to 204,000. The unemployment rate fell to 7.0 percent in November, a rate not seen since November 2008. Yet, despite the strong employment gains, hiring plans remain mostly modest at best over the next year, and manufacturers have accounted for just 3.3 percent of the net new job gains over the past 12 months.
Consumers have seen their spirits lifted recently, particularly as we move further away from the government shutdown. Preliminary data from the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters indicate that consumer confidence has returned to where it was before the budget impasse, even as lingering anxieties persist. (Sentiment remains lower than it was over the summer.) As their attitudes about the economy have improved, Americans have also opened their wallets, albeit somewhat tepidly. Personal spending rose modestly in October, with higher purchases for both durable and nondurable goods. Perhaps more timely, “Cyber Monday” retail sales set a new record, even as overall spending gains have been mixed for the holidays.
Today, we will release the results of the latest NAM/IndustryWeek Survey of Manufacturers. The report captures the mixed nature of the current economic landscape, which is both hopeful and cautious at the same time. The percentage of respondents who were positive about their own company’s outlook continued to edge higher, up from 76.1 percent in September to 78.1 percent in December. Yet, many subcomponents reflected some easing in activity expected over the next year. For example, respondents now anticipate sales growth of 3.0 percent in the next 12 months, down from 3.3 percent in September’s survey. Nonetheless, the report also found that manufacturing production should accelerate over the next two quarters, with the rising stock market and rebounding housing market helping to drive these estimates higher. The NAM/IndustryWeek survey also includes a number of special questions on the Affordable Care Act and the ongoing budget negotiations.
Other economic reports out this week include the latest numbers for job openings, producer prices, retail sales, small business confidence and wholesale trade.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers