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Manufacturing & The Economy

Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index Improves Again

The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index, which had increased in July, improved further in August. The Index now stands at 92.4, up from 90.3 in July. The Present Situation Index increased to 94.6 from 87.9, while the Expectations Index edged down to 90.9 from 91.9 in July.

Consumers’ appraisal of current conditions continued to improve through August. Those saying business conditions are “good” edged up to 23.9% from 23.3%, while those claiming business conditions are “bad” declined to 21.5% from 22.8%. Consumers’ assessment of the job market was also more positive. Those stating jobs are “plentiful” increased to 18.2% from 15.6%, while those claiming jobs are “hard to get” declined marginally to 30.6% from 30.9%. 

Durable Goods Orders Up 22.6% in July

New orders for manufactured durable goods in July increased $55.3 billion or 22.6% to $300.1 billion, the U.S. Census Bureau announced Tuesday. This increase, up five of the last six months, was at the highest level since the series was first published on a NAICS basis in 1992, and followed a 2.7% June increase.

Transportation equipment, also up five of the last six months, drove the increase, $56.6 billion or 74.2% to $133.0 billion. Excluding transportation, new orders decreased 0.8%. Excluding defense, new orders increased 24.9%. 

Texas Manufacturing Expands but at a Slower Pace

Texas factory activity increased again in August, albeit at a slower pace than in recent months, according to business executives responding to the Texas Manufacturing Outlook Survey. The production index, a key measure of state manufacturing conditions, fell from 19.1 to 6.8, indicating output growth slowed from July.

Other measures of current manufacturing activity also reflected notably slower growth in August. The new orders index fell 11 points to 2.2 after surging in July. The capacity utilization index also posted a sharp decline, moving down from 18 to 3.6. The shipments index experienced the largest fall, from 22.8 to 6.4, reaching its lowest reading in eight months.

Perceptions of broader business conditions were less optimistic this month. The general business activity index remained positive but fell to a five-month low of 7.1. The company outlook fell from 11.3 to 1.5, due to a smaller share of firms noting an improved outlook in August than in July. 

Credit Utilization at Highest Levels in Over Five Years

The Commercial Finance Association (CFA) recently released its Quarterly Asset-Based Lending (ABL) Index Q2 2014, showing that U.S. businesses utilized 43.1% of their credit lines during the 2nd quarter, a significant increase of two full percentage points (5%) from the first quarter and 0.7% (1.6%) from the same period in 2013.

CFA’s ABL Index, based on information provided by 27 of the nation’s top asset-based lenders, showed that total committed credit lines grew 1.6% over the previous quarter and 6.0% over the same period one year ago. Total committed credit lines amounted to nearly $204 billion at the end of the Q2 2014.

While credit line utilization has consistently increased over the past four years, companies continue to utilize credit at levels significantly below levels in the years before the financial crisis when utilization of credit lines by U.S. businesses was generally higher than 50%. 

NAM Monday Economic Report – August 25, 2014

Here is the summary of this week’s Monday Economic Report:

Market leaders continue to play the guessing game of when the Federal Reserve Board will start to normalize short-term interest rates. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will begin to raise the federal funds rate sometime in 2015 from the near-zero levels that have been prevalent since the financial crisis in 2008. The Federal Reserve has already announced that it will cease purchasing long-term and mortgage-backed securities in October. In the July FOMC meeting minutes, participants noted recent improvements in the economy, including increased activity among manufacturers (see below). Most notably, they said the following regarding monetary policy over the next few months:

“…many participants noted that if convergence toward the Committee’s objectives occurred more quickly than expected, it might become appropriate to begin removing monetary policy accommodation sooner than they currently anticipated.”

That line, which was widely reported in the media, was seen as hawkish. Indeed, financial markets saw that statement as a sign that short-term rates might rise sooner than expected, perhaps as early as the first quarter of 2015. In her keynote speech at a Kansas City Federal Reserve economic symposium at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen reiterated this point, noting the role that upcoming economic data will have on the timing of policy normalization. She cited continued “slack” in labor markets, but also highlighted positive developments more recently. Either way, it remains true that monetary policy will remain highly accommodative for the foreseeable future, with short-term rate hikes (whenever they occur) being gradual. Recent data on consumer and producer prices have shown inflationary pressures easing a bit, even as they remain near the Federal Reserve’s stated target of 2 percent.

Meanwhile, economic data released last week suggest that the manufacturing rebound that we have seen since the winter continues to strengthen. The Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) increased sharply, up from 55.8 in July to 58.0 in August, reaching its highest level since April 2010. The indices for new orders and production were both above 60, suggesting strong growth and closely mirroring similar data from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM). The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank’s manufacturing survey also reported healthy gains in August, with activity growing at its fastest pace in more than three years, and respondents were very upbeat in their assessment of the next six months. Still, if there are any weaknesses of note, it would be overseas. Manufacturing demand and output were softer in both China and Europe, for instance.

The housing market also appears to be faring better of late, recovering somewhat from the lull that we saw earlier in the year. Housing starts jumped 15.7 percent in July, offsetting significant declines in both May and June. Starts reached their second-highest pace since November 2007, with an annualized 1,093,000 units in July. Both single-family and multifamily construction activity were higher for the month, and housing permits also reflected progress. In addition, existing home sales also notched improved figures in July, with activity up for the fourth straight month. Overall, this is encouraging news for residential construction. We would expect a solid 1.1 million housing starts at the annual rate by year’s end, representing slow-but-steady progress.

This week, we will get an update on second-quarter real GDP, with consensus expectations calling for a slight downward revision from the 4.0 percent growth rate estimate announced in late July. The new figure would still represent a rebound from the first quarter’s decline of 2.1 percent. We will also see if regional activity continues to expand in the August manufacturing surveys from the Dallas, Richmond and Kansas City Federal Reserve Banks, mirroring what we have seen in the similar New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve reports. Other highlights include the latest data on consumer confidence, durable goods orders and personal income and spending.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.

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