Category Archives: Economic Indicators

June Supply Managers’ Manufacturing Index and May Construction

KEY DATA: ISM (Manufacturing): down 0.1 point; Orders: up 2 points: Employment: flat/ Construction: up 0.1%

IN A NUTSHELL: “Manufacturing activity remains solid and the sharp rise in demand points to improvement going forward.”

WHAT IT MEANS: We know the economy went backwards sharply during the winter, but where are we now and where are we going?  It looks like the economy is accelerating, but maybe not as rapidly as most of us had hoped.  The Institute for Supply Management’s June measure of activity eased a touch but the May level was the highest in five months.  In other words, the winter wipeout has been wiped out.  On the positive side, new orders surged and that is good news for future production, which moderated.  However, the level of the production index remained quite high, so we are not talking about any major retrenchment.  Export demand continued to grow, but less robustly while imports accelerated.  Despite the new orders growth, backlogs fell and that may be the reason that hiring didn’t pick up.  We get the employment report on Thursday and it should be really good, but manufacturing may not be the prime driver of the gains.

In a separate report, construction activity increased less than expected in May as residential activity declined.  The good news is that the government is back building infrastructure again as spending on roads, water and sewer projects, power and transportation needs were all up solidly.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Last week we saw that consumer spending was nothing special in May and that has raised some questions about how strong growth was in the just completed second quarter.  We know that households bought lots of motor vehicles.  Indeed, it looks like the June numbers will be even better than projected.  But spending on most other goods was moderate, at best.  Disturbingly, demand for services, the largest component of demand, was up minimally.  Maybe the warm June caused utility demand to jump, but right now, it is hard to see growth above the four percent growth pace I have been forecasting.  But that doesn’t mean the economy is weak or soft or not accelerating.  The manufacturing sector is not doing well because the rest of the world is growing rapidly.  It is doing well because domestic demand is on the rise.  So I still think it is possible that the second half of the year will see strong to robust growth, but until that happens, it will remain a hope.  And the Fed is not operating on hopes and prayers.  Chair Yellen may not be from Missouri but she seems to believe in the state’s nickname of  “Show Me”.  Until growth really does hit its stride, the Fed will be keeping rates low.  As for investors, it’s the first day of the new quarter and they also seem to be willing to believe that rates will remain low and the markets can rise until they are shown that is not the case.

May Consumer Price Index and Housing Starts

KEY DATA: CPI: +0.4%; Excluding Food and Energy: +0.3%/Real Earnings: -0.2%/Starts: -6.5%; Permits: -6.4%

IN A NUTSHELL:  “Rising consumer prices continue to sap consumer spending power and that is not helping the housing market either.”

WHAT IT MEANS: I’ll admit that I am an optimist about the economy.  I believe that growth is strong enough to create the tight labor conditions that will cause wages to rise and the economy to surge.  But the pathway to nirvana remains slow.  Consumer prices jumped in May and it wasn’t all energy or food, which were up sharply.  Costs of a variety of services such as shelter, medical care and transportation also increased.  On the positive side, most non-food or energy commodity prices were well contained, so consumers had at least some respite from the insidious costs of inflation. That said, the jump in consumer prices, coupled with more modest gains in earnings meant that consumer spending power went down again.  Since May 2013, real weekly earnings have declined, yes declined, by 0.1%.  Any further questions about why the economy is not growing rapidly?   “The fault, dear business community, is not at the Fed or in Washington, but it is in ourselves, that we don’t pay our underlings”. (My apologies to Shakespeare and Cassius.)

As for the housing market, it took a bit of a step backward in May as housing starts moderated.  That said, the pace of construction so far this quarter is up by double-digits over the weather restrained first quarter total, so housing should add to growth, possibly significantly.  Permits were off as well, but they had been running well above the start rate for most of the year and now they are more closely aligned.  Continued increases in the number of homes under construction raises a warning that additional gains in starts may be limited unless sales pick up a lot.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: These were not reports that anyone was hoping for.  Indeed, it would have been nice if inflation was more moderate and construction was more robust, but that just was not the case in May.  I am not that worried about the housing sector, as conditions seem to be moving forward, though hardly at a breakneck pace.  It is inflation that concerns me.  The Fed has been not been overly worried about inflation, except to note it is below target and expectation are stable.  The issue is spending power, which remains the missing link in the recovery.  Softer wholesale food prices hold out hope that consumer prices may moderate but Iraq is hardly helpful when it comes to energy costs.  With that as a background, the Fed is meeting and will have to figure out what is happening.  Tomorrow’s statement, projections and press conference should be very interesting.

May Industrial Production and June Empire State Index

KEY DATA: IP: +0.6%; Manufacturing: +0.6%/Empire State: +0.2 point; Orders: +8 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “With manufacturing accelerating, there is every good reason to believe that the economy is beginning to hit its stride.”

WHAT IT MEANS: So much for the winter.  Spring is just about gone and summer holds great hope that we will see consistently solid if not strong growth.  Why am I so optimistic?  The nation’s manufacturing sector is accelerating.  Output soared in May the third month out of the last four where production rose robustly.  Indeed, so far this quarter, manufacturing production has expanded at a 4.7% annualized pace and that does not assume any increase in June.  The winter collapsed activity in January and the sector has made strong progress since.  Most of the rise in manufacturing output was in the durable goods segment with vehicles, furniture, aerospace, electrical equipment and appliances as well as computers and electronic products all posting robust gains.  In addition, while most nondurable goods manufacturers slowed production, there were big gains in plastics, chemicals and petroleum products.  In other words, only nondurable consumer good firms showed weakness.  Capacity utilization hit its highest level in over six years, but in a global economy, this measure has relatively modest value.

Supporting the view that manufacturing is booming was the gain in the June Empire State Index, which is produced by the New York Fed.  This measure of manufacturing activity rose modestly but there was a sharp increase in new orders.  Hiring slowed a bit.  While optimism faded a touch, it is still at a solid level.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:  If the Fed is looking for signs that growth is picking up, all it has to do is look at its own data.  Manufacturing production is soaring and the improvement in the June New York Fed’s report point to the gains being sustained.  Production is rising for big-ticket consumer goods such as furniture and motor vehicles, business equipment and products, such as chemicals and plastics that go into the production of other goods.  The likelihood that manufacturing would be growing at an accelerating pace but the economy expanding weakly, is not particularly great.  It really looks like second quarter GDP could be up by more than 4%.  But it would take strong third and fourth quarter growth rates to put to rest the view that we are in a new world where growth meanders along at a 2% to 2.5% pace.  I expect that to happen, but I am in a minority, at least right now.  Though investors should love these numbers, the chaos in Iraq and the uncertainty in the energy markets could overshadow everything else.

May Producer Price Index and Mid-June Consumer Sentiment

KEY DATA: PPI: -0.2%; Goods: -0.2%; Excluding Food and Energy: 0%; Services: -0.2%/Michigan Sentiment: 81.2 (down 0.7 point)

IN A NUTSHELL: “Producer inflation pressures took a holiday in May, but it is unclear if that is just a temporary lull or a movement back to a trend of modest wholesale cost increases.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Inflation pressures, what inflation pressures?  After two months of sharp increases in wholesale prices, there were growing concerns that we might be in for some acceleration in inflation.  Those fears were eased, at least to some extent, with the May decline in the Producer Price Index.   The retrenchment was in both goods and services.  Food costs, which had been skyrocketing, reversed field and fell.  The huge volatility in this segment is not unusual but it does create some caution in determining future trends.  On the energy side, the reduction we saw is likely to turnaround as the craziness in Iraq is roiling the oil markets.  While food and energy prices have been changing wildly, consumer costs remain tame.  There was one place where rising prices have to be watched closely.  Transportation services costs are jumping and to the extent they represent rising economic activity – and the growing need to move goods and people – the increase in this component could be signaling that improving conditions could trigger some grab for higher prices.  Looking into the future, there does not appear to be any major pressures building that would be a cause for alarm.

In a separate report, the Thompson Reuters/University of Michigan mid-June reading of consumer sentiment dipped again.  It is interesting to note that in the May report, people felt reasonably good about the economy.  However, they are becoming more and more depressed about their incomes as they don’t expect to see any gains this year.  There is a real disconnect in the business community.   They are doing everything possible to keep wages from rising but then they complain that consumers are not buying.  It is hard to buy more goods when your income is stagnating.  I have said this many times and now we see that the hard cap on wage gains is affecting confidence.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Inflation is not likely to be a major issue for the Fed for quite some time.  While wholesale costs are rising at a moderate pace, firms are not passing much of that through and consumer inflation is below the Fed’s desired level.  It will take a lot stronger growth for an extended period for inflation to become a problem.  That allows Fed Chair Yellen to have free reign to keep rates low.  Confidence, wages and consumer spending will remain in its death trap until firms are forced to start bidding for workers.  At that point, spending will pick up and improving confidence will boost it.  But don’t expect anything spectacular until the unemployment rate gets below 6%.   At that point, labor shortages should be widespread enough that wages will start rising fast enough to trigger not only better growth but also words of warning from the Fed about rate hikes.  That time may not arrive until later this year.  Investors will likely be more concerned with Iraq than May wholesale prices. I am not sure how much sense that really makes, as it is not clear there will be any major dislocation of oil supplies.  It is an excuse, though, to take prices up.

May Retail Sales and Import and Export Prices

KEY DATA: Sales: +0.3%; Excluding Vehicle: +0.1%/Non-Fuel Import Prices: 0%; Farm Export Prices: +0.5%/Jobless Claims: 317,000 (up 4,000)

IN A NUTSHELL:  “Consumers are out shopping but maybe not as much as hoped.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Households spent money in May but they were  hardly irrationally exuberant with their purchases.  Retail sales rose moderately but that came on top of an upward revision to the April gains so this report is somewhat better than it appears on the surface, or if you only looked at the headline number.  Robust gains in vehicle sales were expected to push total retail demand up more sharply but that was based on a modest rise that was initially estimated for April.  The previous month’s increase is now put at a very respectable 0.5% pace, not a mediocre 0.1% rise.  So far this quarter, retail sales are rising very solidly.  Outside the expected jump in vehicle demand, the rest of the report was a bit strange.  There were solid increases in furniture, building supplies and Internet retailers but weakness in electronics and appliances, clothing, department stores and food.   So it is unclear what people are thinking when they go out to shop.

On the inflation front, import prices remain pretty tame, especially when you exclude fuel.  We are beginning to see the pressure on food costs easing, which is good news for consumers.  Imported capital goods prices did tick up, but there is not a lot of pressure there, which is also the case with consumer goods.  On the export side, farmers are beginning to get some more money for their products, which is good news for the agricultural sector.

As for the labor market, jobless claims rose a touch but the level remains low enough that we are likely to see another very solid job gain when the June employment data are released.  We could also see the unemployment rate ease as well.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: We are having a spring rebound though it may not be quite as robust as we had hoped.  Consumer spending is clearly rising and another decent gain in June would cement the belief that households are once again playing their part in the recovery.  What will propel things faster, though, is some pay increases.  That seems to be coming as the low level of unemployment claims points to further tightening in the labor market.  But we are months away from the point where businesses will realize that conditions have turned.  After having dismissed worker compensation from their minds for so long, it may take a crisis before many executives recognize they have a real problem on their hands.  As for the markets, this should be a largely non-event.  With international issues playing a part in trader thinking, I suspect not much will be made of any of the reports released today.

May Employment Report

INDICATOR: May Employment Report

KEY DATA: Payrolls: +217,000; Private: 216,000; Unemployment Rate: 6.3% (unchanged); Hourly Wages: +0.2%

IN A NUTSHELL: “A better than expected employment report reinforces the belief that the labor market is strengthening and the economy is picking up steam.”

WHAT IT MEANS: After the robust April report, there were worries that the large job gains were just a rebound from the restraining effects of the winter and we could get a very disappointing payroll increase in May. The ADP estimate only added to those concerns. Well, that didn’t happen. As expected, the May job gains were well below the 282,000 posted in April, but they were still quite solid. Indeed, the three-month average of 234,000 was the strongest in nearly nine years. That was in 2005 when the housing boom was going strong. The increases were largely across the board, with only state and federal governments and the motion picture industry posting large losses. I get it that postal employment is being reduced, but why over 9,000 motion picture employees were cut is beyond me. That was the only oddity in the report. Durable goods payrolls rose but nondurables were down. Construction was okay, not great. The services sector was solid and the rise in temporary workers was not particularly large. The details are frequently really weird but this was not one of those reports. A benchmark was passed in May: Total payrolls finally exceeded their pre-Great Recession peak despite the fact that government remains over 900,000 below its previous high.

On the unemployment front, the rate remained at 6.3%, which was somewhat of a surprise. After declining sharply in April, a modest uptick would have not been unusual. And the stability occurred despite a rise in the labor force and no change in the participation rate. Last month, the drop was discounted by some (not me) because of the shrinking labor force and participation rate. Those changes were just the usual volatility in the data. But there still remains a lot of slack in the labor market as wages rose at a relatively modest pace that is only minimally outstripping inflation. That explains a lot of the sluggishness in the economy.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: This was a very good report that was a surprise only after the ADP numbers came out. Consensus was about 210,000, I was at 224,000 and the number split the difference. Most people, including myself, had the unemployment rising to 6.4%. So this was basically right on expectations. As such, it should not create much excitement in the markets unless you actually sit back and think about it. If we keep creating 225,000 to 250,000 positions a month, a level I think is easily attainable, the unemployment rate will consistently decline. By year’s end, we should be below 6% and moving close to full employment, which is roughly 5.5%. That should be viewed as really good news as it would trigger the needed wage increases. I suspect that firms, which have not had to worry about compensation for years, will fight raising salaries. But that could only defer the judgment day and actually raise costs by increasing turnover. The labor market is not strong by any means, but this report supports the view that it is getting there and probably faster than most believe.