February Industrial Production and Leading Indicators

KEY DATA: IP: 0%; Manufacturing: +0.5%/ LEI: +0.6%

IN A NUTSHELL: “With manufacturing taking off, the economy is moving forward solidly even if consumers don’t want to spend.”

WHAT IT MEANS: It looks like the economic laggard, manufacturing, is now the economic leader. Industrial production was flat in February, but that was entirely due to a major decline in utility production. An exceptionally warm month has a tendency to do that. Wait until you see what the March numbers look like for utilities. They will probably be off the charts. But more importantly, the nation’s manufacturers are showing renewed vigor. The Federal Reserve reported that output surged for the second consecutive month, with both durable and nondurable goods production up sharply. The economy is also being helped by the recovery in the oil and gas sector, which was up for the ninth consecutive month. Oil rig counts are still rising, despite the recent softening in prices – or maybe the prices are softening as a consequence of the rising count. Regardless, this sector is doing better.

Will we see further gains in the economy? If you believe the Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index, the answer is absolutely. This measure of future activity has posted three large gains in a row and after six consecutive increases, it is now at its highest level in more than a decade. It was also reported that the gains were spread across the economy, which is pointing to moderate economic growth ahead.

The University of Michigan’s mid-month reading on consumer confidence was up slightly from the end of February. Given all the chaos in Washington, that was a bit surprising.

When the data were broken down by Democrats, Republicans and Independents, it became clear that the political divide is a chasm. Democrats think a recession is coming while Republicans believe that happy days are here again. Independents take the middle ground, which seems to be where we really are: Not hot, not cold but not really just right.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: As I like to say, as consumers go, so goes the economy. Well, wrong again, or maybe not necessarily. First quarter growth is like to disappoint, as households are just not doing a lot of shopping. But that is not the full economic story. There are other segments that are starting to pick up the slack. Manufacturing is making a major recovery, led in part by renewed activity in the energy sector. When oil prices collapsed and energy companies stopped spending, the companies that supplied goods and services to that segment of the economy got hurt. Turnaround is fair play and that is happening. The huge political divide raises serious questions whether the confidence measures have any economic meaning. I think it is best to simply recognize the rise in confidence but not assume it means anything as far as spending is concerned. And that should concern investors. Inflation-adjusted income is once again flat and if consumers are not going to spend strongly, there is an upper bound to growth. Europe is recovering, but it is hard to believe earnings will soar if domestic consumption is mediocre. That has implications for stock price valuations.