Manufacturing & The Economy
Manufacturers continue to report improved activity in August. Last week, the Dallas, Kansas City and Richmond Federal Reserve Banks all noted expanding levels of new orders and production for the month, mirroring releases from the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks in the prior weeks. These surveys reflect rebounds from earlier in the year, and perhaps more importantly, they suggest a mostly upbeat assessment in demand, output, hiring and capital spending over the next six months. At the same time, the Dallas and Kansas City studies showed some easing in growth rates in August, with the latter indicating that hiring had turned negative for the month. Exports also contracted in the Kansas City district, showing persistent international sales weaknesses in that region. The data illustrate that, even where we have seen progress, there are often some nagging challenges beneath the surface.
This same observation could be made about much of the other data released last week, too. For instance, new durable goods orders soared in July, up a whopping 22.6 percent. This represented an all-time high for the data series, but it was also largely the result of a jump in nondefense aircraft sales. Commercial airplane orders are choppy, with sales usually announced in batches. New durable goods orders have improved from earlier in the year. Outside of transportation, the manufacturing sector was weak in July. New durable goods orders excluding transportation fell 0.8 percent for the month. This suggests that the broader market for manufacturers was soft in July despite the sky-high headline figure.
Along those lines, the Conference Board reported that consumer confidence rose to its highest point since October 2007. This increase stemmed from improvements in views about the current economic environment. Yet, the Conference Board’s figures also suggested some lingering worries about employment and income growth. The University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters’ report on consumer sentiment seems to focus even more on these anxieties. Even with a marginal increase in the August confidence measure, the University of Michigan data have not changed much this year, and respondents have had a diminished view of future growth over the past few months, not unlike what was seen in the Conference Board data. Geopolitical worries might be playing into these doubts. Either way, the confidence reports mirror other indicators, which show that consumers are cautious right now. Personal spending in July declined for the first time since January, consistent with other data showing flat retail sales.
Despite some softness in July, personal spending has increased at an annualized 4.1 percent over the past six months. Indeed, consumer and business spending were strengths during the second quarter, according to the latest revision of real GDP growth. The U.S. economy grew 4.2 percent at the annual rate during the second quarter, slightly better than the 4.0 percent original estimate and reflecting a rebound from the 2.1 percent decline in the first quarter. The biggest disappointment in the second quarter continued to be international trade figures, with net exports serving as a drag on growth. Moving forward, I estimate real GDP growth of roughly 3.0 percent during the second half of 2014. A number of risks abound, and business leaders and consumers remain tentative. If the first half of this year has taught us anything, it is an optimistic recovery can still be a fragile one.
This week, we will get additional insights regarding the health of the manufacturing sector. This morning, the Institute for Supply Management will release its August Purchasing Managers’ Index data for the sector. The ISM report found strong gains in demand, output and employment in July, and the August survey is expected to show another pickup in activity. Moreover, the Bureau of Labor Statistics will publish new jobs numbers on Friday. Manufacturers have added 15,000 workers on average each month since August 2013, with a 22,000 average from May to July of this year. Look for continued hiring growth for the sector in the August numbers that are at least consistent with the average of the past year. Other highlights this week include the latest data on construction spending, factory orders, international trade and productivity.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers