Remember one of the signature expressions of 1960s sitcom character Gomer Pyle – “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”? That was my reaction to this morning’s Federal Reserve release on U.S. manufacturing production for February, which reported a second straight increase.
The February improvement was pretty marginal to be sure – 0.12 percent in after-inflation terms (the kind of numbers that will be presented here unless otherwise specified). And since its production is down on net since last February, domestic industry is still in recession. But any official gain in the hard data is noteworthy, given the lousy February sentiment-based survey results put out by many of the Federal Reserve’s regional branches (e.g., here), which have continued into March (e.g., here), and by leading private sector groups (e.g., here).
Also unexpected: January’s increase was revised up from one of 0.94 percent to one of 1.35 percent. That’s the best such performance since October, 2021’s 1.70 percent. So maybe that January figure wasn’t a one-off, as I speculated last month?
That’s not clear yet. Both the January and February advances also might still stem from a baseline effect – specifically, catch-up from an absolutely terrible December. That month’s manufacturing output decline has now been revised down a second time. Its 2.06 percent sequential dropoff is the worst such result since the 3.64 percent nose-dive in weather-affected February, 2021. But as that journalistic cliché goes, “It’s too soon to tell.”
Here’s what we do know – so far (keeping in mind that revisions of all statistics going back to 2021 will be issued on March 28).
The February report means that U.S.-based manufacturing output is now up since since just before the CCP Virus pandemic arrived stateside in force in February, 2020 by 1.65 percent – the same figure calculable from last month’s Fed release.
Only seven of the 20 broadest manufacturing sub-sectors tracked by the Fed boosted their production in February. The biggest winners were:
>the very big chemicals industry, which expanded output by 1.24 percent. Better yet, this growth came after a January increase of 3.11 percent (the best such performance since April, 2021’s 3.97 percent). The January pop looks like catch-up from December’s 2.63 slump (the worst such performance since weather-affected February, 2021’s 6.69 percent cratering). But the February follow-on could be a sign of truly regained strength.
Since immediately pre-pandemic-y February, 2020, chemicals production is up 7.52 percent, versus the 6.11 percent calculable last month;
>computer and electronic products, where production advanced for the first time since last September – and by 1.22 percent. But now it’s contracted by 0.62 percent during the CCP Virus era, versus having grown by 2.95 percent as of last month’s release; and
>wood products, whose output rose for the second straight month after having slumped for most of the past year. Not so coincidentally, this losing streak paralleled the housing industry woes prompted by the Federal Reserve’s historically rapid interest rate hikes. The February 1.11 percent gain was the best since the 2.81 percent surge last February.
But the wood products industry is still 2.49 percent smaller than it was just before the pandemic’s arrival in force, versus the 2.56 percent calculable last month.
The biggest February maufacturing output losers were:
>textiles and products, which saw production sag by 2.11 percent, the biggest decrease since last June’s 3.44 percent. The fall-off depressed output in this small sector to 12.96 percent below its February, 2020 level, versus the 8.93 percent calculable last month;
>plastics and rubber products, whose production decrease of 1.82 percent was its seventh straight monthly loss, and dragged its output losses down to 5.62 percent below its immediate pre-pandemic levels versus the 4.33 percent calculable last month; and
>miscellaneous non-durable goods, where output slipped by 1.52 percent, and pushed production down to 14.95 below its pre-pandemic level versus the 13.76 percent calculable last month.
Output also drooped in two sectors of continuing special importance to all of industry and the entire economy.
The story of CCP Virus era U.S.-based manufacturing has been in many respects a story of the automotive sector, and in February, vehicle and parts production dipped by 0.28 percent. This advance helped it draw to within 0.12 percent of its size in February, 2020, from the 1.61 percent shortfall calculable last month.
The diverse machinery industry, meanwhile, is crucial both to the rest of manufacturing and to the entire economy because its products are used so widely for retooling and modernization. So its growth indicates general manufacturing and overall business optimism, and vice versa.
Ordinarily, therefore, a moderately 0.40 percent monthly decline in machinery output would be moderately bearish, but the sector has been too volatile lately to be certain. The February decline followed a 3.42 percent burst that was the strongest since 5.12 percent pop of January, 2021. That’s a sign of a catch-up effect.
But the January results followed a 2.59 percent tumble in December that was the worst since last May’s 3.34 percent. All told, however, machinery output is now 5.54 percent greater than just before the pandemic struck, versus the 4.77 percent calculable last month.
Manufacturing sectors of special importance since the pandemic struck also suffered generally lousy Februarys performances.
The semiconductor shortages that have caused so many headaches for U.S. and foreign manufacturers seem to be easing, but supplies remain inadequate for many customers. And the situation won’t be helped by the 1.65 percent real output decrease U.S.-based chip production suffered in February.
Worse, this decrease was the sector’s eighth in a row – and some of these estimates have been revised down substantially. Due to these poor and worsening results, whereas as of last month’s Fed release, U.S. semiconductor output was 4.47 percent above its immediate pre-CCPVirus levels; now it’s 7.83 percent below.
Medical equipment and supplies, which contains the healthcare products used so widely to combat the pandemic, suffered a 0.73 percent real output contraction – its fifth straight monthly decrease.
Medical equipment and supplies output in February dropped for the fifth time in the last six months. But even with this latest 0.51 percent retreat, production in this sector – which includes so many of the products used to fight the CCP Virus – is now 10.52 percent higher than jut before the pandemic hit, versus the 9.85 percent calculable last month.
Production in pharmaceuticals and medicines was off by 0.54 percent in February, but the decrease was the first since last July, and depressed this big sector’s growth since immediately prepandemic-y February, 2020 to 20.42 percent versus the 21.44 percent calculable last month.
The exceptions to this pattern were aircraft and aircraft parts-makers – possibly because industry giant Boeing’s fortunes seem to be looking up finally. Their output increased by 0.35 percent in February, and is now up 30.19 percent since the advent of a pandemic that long hammered travel of all kinds, versus the 35.81 percent calculable last month.
What lies ahead? The entrails remain difficult to read, especially since the new banking crisis is creating doubt as to whether the Federal Reserve will continue an inflation-fighting effort it’s been making vigorously but that still hasn’t produced the economy slowdown it’s seeking – but that may at some point because these monetary tightening moves typically don’t start working for many months. See what I mean?
If the central bank remains on course, domestic manufacturing’s troubles seem certain to return. But as long as the economy keeps defiantly expanding, its power may bring U.S.-based industry securely back into growth mode.