May Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Index, April Leading Indicators and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: Phila. Fed Index: +16.8 points: Orders: -2 points; Expectations: -11.6 points/ LEI: +0.3%/ Claims: -4,000

IN A NUTSHELL: “The manufacturing sector continues to lead the way, creating expectations that second quarter growth could be quite decent.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Have the animal instincts taken over the manufacturing sector? I think it is too early to make that judgment, but it does look as if activity is springing back. Earlier this week we saw that industrial production soared in April. The Philadelphia Fed’s May reading of manufacturer activity in the MidAtlantic district points to continued gains. The overall activity measure soared to one of its highest levels ever. Over the past thirteen years, it was higher only twice, with one of those times coming just this past February. Now the Philadelphia region is not a major player in manufacturing, but the strong performance does hint at good numbers around the nation. The details of the report were not nearly as robust as the overall number. Orders and payrolls expanded solidly, but not quite as rapidly as in April. On the other hand, order books are filling more quickly and shipments soared. Looking forward, though, there was a lot more caution. Expectations dropped sharply and are now pretty much at the average over the past eight years. Managers are hopeful about the future, but are no longer irrationally exuberant.

Another indication that first quarter growth was an aberration was the solid rise in the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Indicator in April. This follows good gains in the previous two months, so growth should be much better through the summer.

The labor market continues to tighten and jobless claims fell again last week. In addition, the percent of the workforce on unemployment insurance continues to set new record lows. Yes, it is nice to say that the economy will grow by 3% or more, but unless firms find the labor to help drive the greater output, it will be difficult to sustain that level of expansion for very long.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The appointment of the Special Council makes it is clear the issues facing the Trump Administration will be with us for a long time. These investigations rarely are concluded quickly. So investors need to focus on the actual economy and right now, it can be said that growth looks like it is back on track – for another year of 2% or so growth. The Republican leadership still wants to get a tax cut/reform bill done by the end of the year, but that could be more hopes than realistic expectations. Thus, it is reasonable not to expect any major economic impact from tax changes for another year. And that is why I don’t expect growth to accelerate much this year. But 2% growth, given the sluggish increase in the labor force, will be enough to keep the unemployment rate slowly falling. That means the Fed is likely to raise rates slowly but steadily. As we move closer to the June 13-14 FOMC meeting, look for the members to stake out their positions – i.e., send messages to the markets about what is likely to happen. If there is no hike in June, as most expect, it almost certainly will come at the July25-26 meeting, assuming second quarter growth isn’t totally disappointing.