(What’s Left of) Our Economy: An Up-Side Surprise for U.S. Manufacturing Output

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Just as it’s looking like the U.S. economy as a whole may have skirted the danger of a near-term recession, domestic American manufacturing saw a revival of its fortunes last month, according to yesterday morning’s latest official report on its after-inflation output in July.

Following two consecutive months of falling real production, U.S.-based industry grew by 0.74 percent in price-adjusted terms sequentially last month – its best such performance since March’s 0.74 percent. Revisions were mixed but modest.

These new figures mean that constant dollar U.S. manufacturing output is now 3.69 percent greater than in February, 2020, the last month before the CCP virus and assorted mandatory and voluntay burbs on economic behavior triggered a steep but brief recession and began distorting the economy. As of June’s release, domestic manufacturing had grown by an inflation-adjusted 2.98 percent since then.

Among the broadest manufacturing sub-sectors tracked by the Fed were:

>the automotive industry, whose volatility fueled many of U.S.-based manufacturing’s ups and downs earlier during the pandemic, boosted its real output by 6.60 percent on month – and this burst was only its best such result since March’s 9.04 percent. Revisions here were generally negative, with June’s initially reported monthly loss of 1.49 percent revised up to one of 1.27 percent, but May’s results downgraded again to a drop of 1.92 percent, and April’s originally reported gain of 3.92 percent is pegged at 2.98 percent. All told, though, vehicle and parts production -though still dealing with semiconductor shortages – once again rose back above its immediate pre-pandemic level by 4.73 percent. As of last month, it was still down by 1.07 percent;

>fabricated metal products, which lifted real output on month in July by 2.05 percent – its best such result since February’s 2.49 percent. Revisions were mixed, with June’s initially reported decline of -0.83 percent now estimated as a decrease of 1.40 percent, May’s initially reported shrinkage of 1.16 percent downgraded further to a 1.18 tumble before being upgraded to one of 1.02 percent, and April’s initially 0.85 percent rise previously revised down to a 0.46 percent advance before recovering to one of 0.65 percent. Inflation-adjusted production in this sector has now come to within 0.14 percent of its February, 2020 levels, as opposed to 2.11 percent below them calculable last month;

>aerospace & miscellaneous transportation equipment, where constant dollar production jumped 1.54 percent month-to-month, and where revisions were mixed, too. June’s initially reported fractional improvement is now judged to have been a dip of 0.14 percent, May’s advance estimate of a 0.85 percent decrease bouncing back from a downgrade to a 1.25 percent drop to one of 1.05 percent, and April’s initially reported 2.15 percent increase getting upgaded to one of 3.47 percent before settling back to one of 3.34 percent. In after-inflation terms, this cluster of industries is 21.30 percent bigger than just before the CCP Virus’ arrival in force, versus the 19.47 percent calculable last month; and

>apparel and leather goods, which recorded a second straight excellent growth month. July constant dollar production increased on month by 1.60 percent, and June’s initially reported 2.54 percent surge was revised all the way up to 6.09 percent – its best such result since the 8.04 percent recorded in August, 2020, when the economy’s recovery from the first virus wave was still underway. But May’s initially reported 0.88 percent price-adjusted output rise was revised down a second time – to a 0.24 percent dip. And April’s advance figure, a 0.18 percent climb, is now estimated to have been a 0.43 percent decrease. Still, thanks to the last two months’ results, this long-beleaguered sector has now grown in real terms by 5.71 percent, as opposed to the 0.56 percent calculable last month; and

July’s worst performing of the major sub-categories tracked by the Fed?

>printing and related support activities, where price-adjusted production sank by 1.67 percent on month. Revisions overall were positive, with June’s first reported loss of 2.16 percent revised up to one of 0.51 percent, May’s advance estimate of a 0.35 percent retreat upgraded a second time, to one of only 0.09 percent, and April’s initially reported 0.49 percent gain now standing at 0.69 percent. All the same, this group of companies still 10.50 percent smaller in real terms than it was in February, 2020, versus the11.37 figure calculable last month;

>furniture and related products,where real output sagged by 1.57 percent sequentially, the worst such result since the 2.77 percent decrease in February, 2021. Revisions on the whole were just as bad, with June’s initially reported fall-off of -0.55 percent now judged to have been one of 1.33 percent, May’s initially reported 0.94 increase (the biggest since this past February’s 4.75 percent pop) revised down second time to ai 0.99 decrease, and April’s initially reported -0.59 percent drop now pegged at a slightly smaller one of 0.41 percent. These results dragged down the furniture complex’s performance down to a 5.56 percent inflation-adjusted output shrinkage since immediately pre-pandemic-y February, 2020, versus a 0.91 percent decline calculable last month; and

>electrical equipment, appliances and components, where after-inflation production was off 1.41 percent from June’s levels. Revisions, though, were on the whole positive. June’s originally reported production increase of 1.34 percent was revised up to 1.42 percent (the best such performance since February’s 2.29 percent), May’s downgrade from an advance decrease of 1.83 percent to one of 2.35 percent was upgraded to a 1.93 percent retreat, and April’s initially reported -0.60 percent drop is now judged to have been a 0.57 percent advance. Yet constant dollar production in this cluster is now up only 4.83 percent over its last pre-pandemic reading, versus the 5.59 percent figure calculable last month.

As known by RealityChek regulars, the very big and diverse machinery sector is seen as a bellwether for both the rest of manufacturing and the rest of the entire economy, since so many industries use its products. So it’s encouraging to report that in July its companies notched their first monthly real output gain (0.50 percent) since April. Revisions, however, were overall sigificantly negative terrible. June’s initially reported 1.14 percent decrease is now pegged at 2.16 percent, and May was downwardly revised again to a 3.53 percent loss (the sector’s worst since the 18.64 percent collapse in April, 2020, during the worst of the economy’s pandemic-induced downturn). Only April broke the pattern even somewhat. Its initially reported 0.85 percent price-adjusted sequential output rise was upgraded all the way to 2.27 percent in May. It’s been downgraded since, but still stands at a 1.88 percent advance (the best since January’s 1.95 percent.

These results mean that wherewas last month, inflation-adjusted machinery production was up 4.70 percent during the pandemic era, now it’s only 2.82 percent higher.

The industries that consistently have made headlines during the pandemic performed well in July, too.

Measured in constant dollars, production by aircraft- and aircraft parts-makers was up 1.02 percent on month, but revisions were modesty negative. June’s initially reported after-inflation output growth of 0.26 percent is now pegged at only 0.18 percent, and May’s real production was unchanged at down 0.23 percent after having been downgraded from a 0.33 percent improvement. After having been upgraded twice, from an initially reported 1.67 percent advance to one of 3.13 percent, the April results dipped to a 2.96 percent rise. But this was still the best monthly result since January, 2021’s 8.60 percent surge). Nonetheless, the aircraft and parts sector is now 26.67 percent larger in real terms, since February, 2020 – up from the 25.58 percent figure calculable last month.

In the big pharmaceuticals and medicines industry, real production climbed on month by 0.29 percent n July and revisions were generally positive. June’s initially reported 0.39 percent increase was slightly downgraded to 0.32 percent, but after having its initially reported 0.42 percent increase was revised down to only 0.01 percent, it was upgraded all the way to a 1.20 percent improvement. And April’s initially reported -0.20 percent after-inflation monthly production dip was revised up a third time to a 0.08 percent increase. Due to these results, real output of aircraft and parts has now grown by 14.69 percent during the pandemic period, versus the 12.98 percent calculable last month.

Medical equipment and supplies firms (who make so many of the products used to fight the CCP Virus) enjoyed a banner July, expanding after inflation by 1.90 percent – its best such result since January’s 3.15 percent jump. June’s initially reported from 3.12 percent rise was downgraded to one of 1.01 percent, but after a downward revision from 1.44 percent real growth to 1.01 percent, May’s results wee revised back up to 1.66 percent, and after two straight upward revisions and one downward, April’s final (for now!) result is now judged to be 0.44 percent growth. But this cluster’s virus era inflation-adjusted production growth now stands at 16.15 percent versus the 17.27 percent calculable last month.

For the shortage-plagued semiconductor industry, price-adjusted output improved on month in July by 1.16 percent. Revisions were positive – but all over the place. June’s initially reported 0.18 percent rise is now pegged at 0.49 percent. But after a massive downgrade from 0.52 growth to 2.24 percent shrinkage, May’s performance is now recorded as a 0.37 gain. And the April sequential results are now as follows: down 1.85 percent, down 0.88 percent, down 2.71 percent, and down 2.68 percent – still the worst production month since the 11.26 percent plunge in December, 2008 – in the middle of the Great Recession that followed the global financial crisis. After all this movement, though, constant dollar semiconductor production is now up 21.98 percent since pre-pandemic-y February, 2020, up dramatically from the 15.22 percent calculable last month.

Even by pandemic-era standards, the outlook for domestic manufacturing looks unusually murky to me. The reasons for pessimism abound (like the near certainty of more growth-slowing monetary tightening by the Federal Reserve in order to tame inflation, darkening growth prospects in all of export-heavy manufacturing’s foreign markets, and continuing supply chain woes, industry’s still ginormous trade deficit). But so do reasons for (cautious) optimism (like U.S. unemployment at 50-year lows and all the personal spending this level supports, the chance that the Fed will ultimately chicken out in its anti-inflation campaign, and the ongoing fade of the pandemic).

Moreover, and maybe most important, all recent bets so far against U.S.-based manufacturing’s resilience have been losing bets. Unless you think that the nation’s manufacturers have suddenly lost their chops, or are about to, it’s reasonable to suppose that, at least for now, they remain horses worth riding.       

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: A Strong Case for Decoupling from China Much Faster

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What if Americans no longer had to pay so much attention to two of the biggest economic reasons for worry about China? Specifically, if Americans didn’t need to be nearly so concerned that much smarter, tougher measures against China’s predatory economic policies would cost their exporters access to a gigantic current and potentially bigger market? And they believed that decoupling from the hostile, dangerous People’s Republic could be much less economically damaging than widely supposed? 

Those are fascinating and important questions asked and suggested by Wall Street Journal columnist Joseph C. Sternberg in a piece over the weekend, and he presented some compelling evidence that, however “preposterous” it sounds now, these possibilities are surprisingly close to becoming realities. Moreover, they’re getting closer all the time, thanks to dictator Xi Jinping’s reversal of the free market-ish reforms and integration into the global economy begun by Beijing in the 1980s.

His evidence? The big payoff that supposedly motivated the U.S. and foreign governments and their multinational companies to push so hard to bring China into the world trading system – that aforementioned access to the Chinese market – is stalling out way short of expectations. In fact, as Sternberg documents, “China makes a disproportionately low contribution to Western firms’ bottom lines relative to its population and potential.”

To support these claims, the author cites data showing that the China market’s share of the revenues of several big Western economies’ multinational businesses (including America’s) remains well below ten percent. And this even though:

(a) more than twenty years have passed since China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), which entitled the People’s Republic to nearly all the benefits of integration with the global economy (while de facto enabling it to avoid most of the obligations); and

(b) China’s share of global economic output (which should approximate its share of the worldwide market for goods and services) had reached more than 15 percent in 2020 – and this percentage had jumped by some 50 percent in 2013.

But even these figures may be exaggerated, at least in the U.S. case. The financial research firm Calcbench has examined the share of revenues 67 of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index earned in China in 2020. It came to a total of 10.48 percent – a little higher than Sternberg’s figure.

Most of the firms most reliant on China revenues, however, like Qualcomm (59.5 percent of its global total), Texas Instruments (55.5 percent), Lam Research (35.1 percent), and Applied Materials (31.7 percent) are either semiconductor manufacturers, producers of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, or makers of other advanced electronics parts and components. And large percentages of their China revenues are sold to the China-based factories that turn out consumer electronics products (like personal computers and cell phones), and that export huge shares of their own output. That is, those revenues aren’t really earned by sales to final customers located in China. They’re earned by sales to final customers located outside China (like the United States).

Just how large are some of these export percentages? According to this source and this source, 64.4 percent of all the cell phones made in China were sold overseas. According to this source and this source, 65.04 percent of the notebook computers made in the People’s Republic were exported that year. So that should more than satisfy the definition of “large”.   

One important claim that Sternberg gets wrong, however – that contention that “Countries wanted to open China to trade because of its population of more than 1.4 billion consumers. Their ascent into the global middle class, buying U.S. and European goods and services along the way, was the great prize to be won.”

In fact, as Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown explained in 2007, the companies “really had way more interest in one billion Chinese workers” when they were lobbying so hard to bring China into the WTO. I.e., they recognized at that point that China would long remain far too poor to become a major final market for their goods and services. But they were rightly confident that, with foreign training and management, China’s vast population could become highly productive (but still extremely cheap workers) long before that. A 2000 study by yours truly presented abundant evidence 

And China’s continuing heavy reliance on exports means that for all its spectacular progress, the People’s Republic is still far from the point where it can generate acceptable levels of growth and employment by relying on its own market for sales. In other words, for decades, the United States in particular -which has run the by far the world’s biggest trade deficit with China – has enjoyed much more leverage over China than vice versa. 

This doesn’t mean that Sternberg is under any illusions that further decoupling the U.S. and other foreign economies from China’s would be painless (though the still relatively self-sufficient U.S. economy would obviously feel much less – short-term – pain). But as he notes, China’s economy is running into big, growing problems – in particular a massive, already deflating real estate bubble that is undercutting the ability to China’s consumers to maintain current levels of spending on anything. In addition, Xi Jinping’s evident determination to squeeze foreign companies out of China as soon as feasible is leaving these foreign companies and economies little choice over the longer run.  So shouldn’t the United States and the rest of the world take these hints more closely to heart and greatly step up decoupling from China?  

Im-Politic: Welcome Polling News for Immigration Realism

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Two sets of poll results sure don’t make a trend. But they’re sure more convincing than one set of poll results. So recent surveys from Gallup and YouGov could signal an encouraging turning point in U.S. public opinion on immigration issues – and one brought about by the epic failure of the Biden administration’s Open Borders-friendly statements and actions.

Gallup’s findings were posted on August 8. The headline development? The share of American adults contacted between July 5 and 26 believing that immigration levels should be decreased stood at 38 percent. That’s the highest level since June, 2016 and up from 31 percent last June. Moreover, the annual percentage- point increase was the biggest since 2008 and 2009 – when the economy was mired in the Great Recession that followed the global financial crisis.

The share of respondents who wanted immigration levels to be decreased or remain the same (69 percent) was also the highest since June, 2016 (72 percent) and up from 66 percent last year.

By an overwhelming 70 percent to 24 percent, Gallup found that Americans agree that “on the whole” immigration is a “good thing” rather than a “bad thing.” But even though this question seems to focus on immigration views in the abstract, with no relation to current conditions, the “good thing” share of responses fell from 75 percent last year, and the “bad thing” responses rose from 21 percent.

In addition, the “good thing” responses represented the lowest percentage of the total since 2014 (63 percent) and the “bad thing” responses the highest since 2016. And the 46 percentage-point margin enjoyed by the “good thing” responses is a drop from last year’s 54 percentage points and the smallest since 2014’s 30 percentage points.

Also striking in the Gallup results: It’s no surprise that the 69 percent of respondents identifying as Republican wanting less immigration is by far the highest total since Gallup began asking these questions (surpassing 2009’s 61 percent). It’s also no great surprise that independent identifiers agreeing with this stance has rebounded lately a bit to 33 percent (though still far below its high of 51 percent in 2002.

But it’s really surprising, especially given their loathing of immigration restrictionist Donald Trump and the growing influence of progessives in the party, that the share of Democratic identifiers supporting less immigration is up from 12 percent last year to 17 percent this year.

The YouGov survey was conducted in late July, and reported that by a 35 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believed that immigration “makes the country” “worse off” instead of “better off.” According to Andrew Arthur of the Center for Immigration Studies, that’s a huge turnabout from what the same outfit found in September, 2019. Then, “better off” won by 43 percent to 19 percent.

At the same time, this latest YouGov survey found that 31 percent of Americans support increasing legal immigration versus 22 percent who want it reduced. Gallup didn’t draw the (critical) legal/illegal distinction. I don’t know how these results have changed over time. But the sheer size of the discrepancy indicates that even if American opinions are moving their way, it’s still far from certain that restrictionists (who I of course consider to be the adults in the room) have won the day.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Are High Prices Starting to Cure Wholesale Inflation, Too?

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In Wednesday’s post, I wrote that I was somewhat surprised about the new (and somewhat encouraging) official U.S. data for consumer inflation in July because June’s figures for what’s often called wholesale inflation were so bad. Because when the prices businesses charge each other to turn out the goods and services they sell, they typically compensate by passing these higher costs on to consumers.

But I actually shouldn’t have found those latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) numbers so unexpected. As I’ve pointed out before (e.g., here) such higher costs can be passed along only if consumers go along. So I should have recognized the better (but still far from good) CPI results as a sign that consumers are starting to balk – by cutting back their spending to some extent.

And significantly, yesterday’s official Producer Price Index (PPI) results for July suggest that businesses themselves began protesting higher prices and cutting back on purchases of their own inputs. That is, they may represent another example backing the adage that the best cure for high prices is high prices. 

In fact, in all the important ways, the new figures for both “headline” producer inflation and its “core” counterpart (which strips out energy and food prices supposedly because they’re volatile for reasons having little at best to do with the economy’s fundamental vulnerability to inflation) strongly resembled those for consumer inflation.

Both the headline and core PPI indices barely rose sequentially (reflecting a bit of “price rebellion,” and worsened on annual bases at a pace that was the slowest in many months, but still alarmingly high in absolute terms. Further, as with the CPI, the big reason for this improvement was the drop in energy prices. And both annual CPI and PPI rates remain worrisome because they’re coming off results for the previous year that were also historically torrid.

One prime indicator of how dramatically energy has affected these results comes from the month-to-month headline PPI numbers.

By this measure, producer prices sank by 0.50 percent (yes, “sank” – didn’t just “rise more slowly”) in July– the first such drop since April, 2020 (1.27 percent) when the first wave of the CCP Virus was wreaking its maximum damage on the economy. And this milestone followed a June monthly increase of 1.01 percent. The percentage-point swing between these two figures (1.51) was the greatest on record (though to be fair, this data series only goes back to late 2009).

The evidence for energy’s leading role? The July sequential fall-off of 8.96 percent (the first such decline since last December’s 1.42 percent and the biggest since since the 16.85 percent nosedive in peak pandemic-y April, 2020) came on the heels of June’s 9.41 percent increase – the biggest since June, 2020’s 9.99 percent, as the economy was recovering rapidly from that first virus wave, related lockdowns and other mandated restrictions, and voluntarily reduced activity. In addition, the percentage-point swing of 18.37 was the biggest since the 18.40 shift between the April, 2020 energy price crash and the May, 2020 rebound.

As for core producer prices, they crept up by just 0.15 percent on month in July. That’s the smallest such increase since last December’s 0.17 percent increase. And they displayed little volatility, as the 15 percentage-point difference between June’s rise of 0.32 percent and July’s was exactly the same as that between the June advance and May’s of 0.47 percent.

The annual PPIs tell a similar story of energy price dominance.

Headline producer inflation was up 9.69 percent on a year-on-year basis in July – the lowest such increase since last October’s 8.90 percent. And percentage-point difference between the July annual decrease and June’s of 11.25 percent (1.56) was the biggest since producer prices strengthened by 0.36 percent on an annual basis in March, 2020, as the virus arrived in the United States in force, and then weakened by 1.44 percent in April (a 1.76 percentage point difference).

And once again, energy prices were the big driver.

In July, they jumped 27.59 percent year-on-year. But even that blazing pace was dwarfed by June’s 53.54 percent annual surge – the biggest on record (again, going back only to late 2009), and well ahead of the previous all-time high of 47.71 percent in April, 2021 (a figure strongly bolstered by the baseline effect, since in peak pandemic-y April, 2020, annual energy prices crashed by 30.20 percent.

The percentage-point gap between the June and July results were the widest ever, too – 25.95. The previous record was the 24.56 percentage point difference between that record 47.71 percent annual spurt increase in April, 2020 and the previous month’s rise of a relatively modest 23.15 percent. 

Since it doesn’t include energy prices, annual core PPI’s ups and downs – like those of monthly wholesale inflation – have been pretty tame in comparison.

The July increase of 5.75 percent was the best such performance since June, 2021’s 5.60 percent. And the annual rate of increase has now slowed for four straight months.

July’s annual core PPI rise was also an impressive 0.82 percentage points less than the June figure of 6.38 ercent. But that gap was only the biggest since May, 2020’s 0.62 percentage-point difference over the April results.

This relatively gradual drop in core PPI on a yearly basis (which RealityChek regulars know is a more reliable gauge of the trends in the monthly numbers because the longer timespan measured smooths out inevitably random short-term fluctuations) is the most compelling evidence that headline producer and consumer prices will remain worrisomely high for the foreseeable future.

This scenario isn’t inevitable. Maybe Americans can count on energy prices continuing to decline month-to-month long enough to bring annual inflation rates down in absolute terms. And maybe even they don’t, high energy prices won’t start boosting prices throughout the rest of the economy. But those developments can only be reasonably expected if consumer and business spending weakens enough to produce sluggish overall economic growth and even a recession.

Such a downturn is probably the price the nation has to pay to extinguish inflationary fires. The big problem is that, without a serious focus on reversing the long and possibly worsening U.S. slump in productivity growth, other than relief from the current cost of living crisis, the public – and especially the poorest Americans – probably won’t receive any major and solidly grounded living standards payoff from such a victory.

Making News: Podcast Now On-Line of National Radio Interview on Reviving U.S. Semiconductor Making…& More!

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I’m pleased to announce that the podcast is now on-line of my appearance on last night’s nationally syndicated “CBS Eye on the World with John Batchelor.”

Click here for a timely discussion with John and co-host Gordon G. Chang, about whether a massive new array of subsidies and incentives just signed into law by President Biden will indeed revive American microship production, and prevent U.S.- and foreign-owned semiconductor companies from setting up state-of-the-art operations in China.

In addition, it was great to see IndustryToday.com reprint (with permission, as required!) my recent post on some of Mr. Biden’s factually challenged claims about the economy’s performance during his presidency. Here’s the link.

Finally, I’m honored to have been invited to speak at a big conference to be held in Miami, Florida on the future of American conservatism – including what it should be. My talk, on An America First Approach to Trade and Competition,” is so far scheduled for Sunday, September 11. But sometimes these plans get reshuffled, so I’ll post any updates as soon as they become available. In the meantime, click this link for the rest of the agenda, and the all-star cast of speakers that’s been lined up, at this link. 

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: U.S. Inflation Just Got a Bit Better – But it’s Far From Good

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Finally! Some good news about U.S. inflation! Not that it’s incredibly good news. But today’s July results for the Consumer Price Index (CPI) were sure better than June’s awful read.

The news was also somewhat surprising, at least to me, because the official June figures for wholesale inflation – the prices businesses charge each for the goods and services needed to turn out what they sell to consumers – had accelerated some since May. And that type of development in the Producer Price Index (PPI) is usually a sign that these businesses will pass these prices on commensurately to their final customers.

Still, there were two big flies in this mildly encouraging ointment.

First: Yes, overall, or “headline” CPI actually fell on a monthly basis and rose more slowly in July on an annual basis. And yes, “core” inflation (which strips out food and energy prices because supposedly they’re volatile for reasons have little to do with the economy’s fundamental inflation-proneness) rose less than half as fast month-to-month than in June. But on an annual basis the latter stayed at its alarming levels.

Second, the main reason that inflation generally speaking has been slower lately is because the economy is slowing – and may even be in recession. As I’ve explained several times (e.g., here and here), it’s anything but difficult for the Federal Reserve and the rest of the federal government to cool price increases by dampening the ability of consumers and businesses to buy goods and services. And just how loudly should we cheer the lower living standards resulting from those growth-slowing steps?

With these caveats in mind, today’s CPI report showed that headline inflation dipped sequentially in July by 0.02 percent. That’s the first monthly decrease in absolute terms since the 0.06 percent decline in May, 2020 – when the economy was just starting to recover from the first wave of the CCP Virus and the deep lockdowns-induced downturn it triggered. And the July figure was light years better than June’s 1.32 percent increase – the biggest monthly jump since July, 1980’s 1.33 percent.

This progress owes entirely (at least when we’re talking about the major categories of goods and services) to a 4.56 percent monthly drop in energy prices – the first such decline since April’s 2.70 percent and the biggest since the 10.31 percent plunge in April, 2020, while that virus-induced was still with us.

And energy prices weakened in turn largely because the recent sky-high prices for gasoline have led Americans to cut way back on their summertime driving – which has fallen below even pandemic-y 2020 levels, when so many CCP Virus-related travel restrictions remained in place. Indeed, gasoline prices on month sank by 7.71 percent – their biggest such tumble since the 20.80 percent crash dive also in pandemic-y April, 2020. (Don’t forget, though, that global energy prices are also off their recent peaks because growth in the rest of the world is down considerably, too.)

As for core inflation, progress was registered on a monthly basis, too, with these prices rising sequentially in July by just 0.31 percent – much lower than July’s 0.71 percent and the best such performance since last September’s 0.25 percent.

Yet on an annual basis, as indicated above, July core inflation stayed exactly where is was in June: 5.91 percent. And although this pace was the slowest since last December’s 5.48 percent, it also means that progress according to this measure has stopped for the time being.

Can falling energy prices continue, and keep dragging down the headline CPI? The U.S. Energy Department has just weighed in here:

The August Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) is subject to heightened uncertainty resulting from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, how sanctions affect Russia’s oil production, the production decisions of OPEC+, the rate at which U.S. oil and natural gas production rises, and other contributing factors. Less robust economic activity in our forecast could result in lower-than-forecast energy consumption.”

In brief, “Search us.”

Will big elements of core inflation, like housing and new vehicles and used vehicles and healthcare, keep stabilizing at current (still historically high) rates or even moderating some? And can this progress continue while a recession is avoided? Those are the questions that need to be answered to get some visibility on future inflation, and figure out how satisifed we’ll be with the results.

In the meantime, look out for the next official release on wholesale prices – which is released tomorrow! 

 

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: America’s Long-Time Productivity Slump Looks Like it’s Deepening

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Since strong productivity increases are America’s best hope for improving living standards, sustainable prosperity and robust non-inflationary economic growth, it’s clearly bad news that the nation may be on the edge of a productivity growth cliff – and staring into a canyon. That’s the clear message being sent by the new official U.S. preliminary data on labor productivity for the second quarter of this year released by the Labor Department this morning.

At least as bad: The lousy labor productivity figures strengthen the case that even though U.S. wages aren’t rising nearly as fast as living cost, they still could be fueling some of the torrid inflation of the last year and a half or so.

There’s a possibility that this dreadful performance is just another hangover from the CCP Virus pandemic and related lockdowns and curbs on individuals’ voluntary activity (along with the massive covid relief measures provided by Washington), which has played havoc with the entire economy and the data used to monitor its health. But it’s crucial to remember that the nation is also suffering a long-term productivity growth slump, so any virus distortions aren’t reflected in the numbers may not be game-changing.

As known by RealityChek regulars, labor productivity is the narrower of the two measures of efficiency tracked by Labor, and measures the output of each worker per each hour on the job. The Department itself made clear how awful the second quarter results were for the non-farm business sector – the numbers that are followed most closely:

The 2.5-percent decline in labor productivity from the same quarter a year ago [actually, it was 2.55 percent] is the largest decline in this series, which begins in the first quarter of 1948.” (Actually, the Department’s own raw data tables go back to the first quarter of 1947.) Let’s all agree that a 75-year all-time worst is really alarming.

The quarterly figures were stomach-turning, too. Labor productivity sank at an annual rate of 4.71 percent sequentially – the fifth biggest such drop ever. Further, this followed on the heels of the first quarter’s sequential 7.64 percent nosedive – the second worst since the 12.26 percent crash of the third quarter of 1947.

And here’s some thoroughly depressing context: Such back-to-back quarterly declines are rare. Before that latest stretch, they – or longer labor productivity losing streaks – had only happened eleven times over the last three quarters of a century.

Two consecutive declines in labor productivity aren’t the longest such stretch on record. That dubious honor belongs to the five-quarter period between the second quarter of 1973 and the third quarter of 1974. But the latest cumulative quarterly deterioration of 12.26 percent at annual rates is the worst of all time. True, it’s just slightly greater than the 12.24 percent cumulative drop suffered during that 1973-74 productivity depression. But don’t forget – the current streak may not be over yet!

As for that 2.51 percent annual decline in labor productivity, the context here is completely gloomy, too. As with the sequential results, it represented the second straight worsening – following the 0.58 percent drop in the first quarter. And two or more straight annual labor productivity decreases have only happened six times before this morning’s release.

Also as with the quarter-to-quarter figures, a stretch of two straight decreases isn’t the longest ever. Between 1973 and 1974, annual productivity fell four consecutive times. But the current annual slump is the deepest since that which lasted between the first and third quarters of 1982. And of course, today’s slump isn’t over yet, either.

As I’ve written previously, productivity is the measure of economic performance in which most economists are least confident (especially in service industries that make up the vast bulk of the U.S. economy). Further, labor productivity is a narrower measure of efficiency than total factor productivity, which measures output as a function of a wide range of inputs used by business (not only workers but capital, technology, materials, etc.) And today’s second quarter results will be revised next month (which recently I mistakenly reported as the date for these preliminary numbers), with the latest set of (annual) revisions coming this fall.

But most legitimate doubts about the productivity data mainly concern their precision, not the direction they show. And all-time worsts and near-worsts surely can’t be mainly attributed to measurement flaws. And as for the total factor results, for decades, they’ve been no great shakes, either, as made clear in the above linked RealityChek post. Maybe the revisions will substantially brighten the picture?

So far, though, that’s just a “maybe.” The best information available indicates that America’s long-time productivity woes are taking a big turn for the worse, and that in combination with recent wage increases could be embedding unacceptably high inflation – and stagnating living standards – into the U.S. economy’s foreseeable future.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: The Real Biden Record on Job Creation

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No one can reasonably blame President Biden for running a victory lap right after last Friday’s official U.S. jobs figures (for July) came out. The 528,000 jobs added by employers more than doubled the consensus forecast, and undercut claims that his policies had created both historically torrid inflation and an actual or impending recession. And what U.S. President has ever resisted taking credit for whatever good economic news takes place during his term in office?

But in many key respects, Mr. Biden’s boasting went far overboard. For example, according to the President, “[W]e’re almost to 10 million jobs — almost to 10 million jobs since I took office.  And that’s the fastest job growth in history.”

Except that it’s not. Since he entered office, the overall economy (defined by the Labor Department as the non-farm economy), has indeed seen net employment growth of 9.519 million. But between April, 2020 (the early pandemic era bottom) through January, 2021, total payrolls grew by 12.504 million.

It’s true that the early post-pandemic bounceback was unusually fast, benefiting from a reopening-strengthened rubber band effect from an unusually deep downturn. But it’s also true that the 12-plus million pre-Biden employment boost came over nine months. The Biden-era jobs have been created over 18 months.

Another tall Biden tale: “Since I took office, we’ve created 642,000 American manufacturing jobs in America.  We’ve seen the biggest and the fastest job recovery in American manufacturing history since the ‘50s.”

The 642,000 number is correct. But during that pre-Biden phase of the recovery, employment in industry grew by 761,000. And the rubber band effect was somewhat weaker, since manufacturing lost a smaller share of its workforce during the depths of the pandemic than the rest of the economy.

Some job quality concerns are marring the Biden period record, too. Chiefly, fewer of those new jobs have been truly private sector jobs than during that prior recovery phase, and more have been jobs in government and in areas of the economy that I’ve called the subsidized private sector. These are categories like social services an especially the giant healthcare services sector that are heavily dependent on government funding for their economic performance – including their employment levels.

As I’ve repeatedly noted, many of these public sector and subsidized private sector jobs are vital for any modern economy. But their scale is influenced primarily by politicians’ decisions, not by market forces, and therefore they tell us relatively little about the economy’s real health.

Moreover, if you believe (as you should) that the private sector is more productive than the public sector, and that as a result its performance is the best guarantee of sustainable prosperity, then you want to see the private sector maintain a big lead in job creation over the government and subsidized private sector.

Unfortunately, that lead to date has eroded during the Biden presidency. Specifically, over the nine months of recovery before his inauguration, government (at all levels) plus subsidized private sector jobs accounted for 12.02 percent of the total expansion achieved in non-farm employment. But since then, these sectors have generated 16.92 percent of the total.

And government jobs accounted for all of this increase – and then some. During the pre-Biden recovery, they fell by 116,000. Under his administration, they’ve risen by 494,000.

President Biden is by no means responsible for the relative growth of government and especially subsidized private sector employment. As known by RealityChek regulars, that’s been a long-time trend, at least until the CCP Virus came along. Further, because of the country’s aging population, it could well be an unstoppable trend (unless the healthcare system in particular somehow becomes a lot more efficient). But as mentioned above, one price to date has been a less healthy economy. And how nice it would be if politicians spent more time talking about this tradeoff and how to at least ease it, and less time spinning jobs data so hard that they veer into misinformation.             

Our So-Called Foreign Policy: The Deaf Leading the Blind on U.S. China Policy

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Is “beyond clueless” or “beyond intellectually dishonest” the best way to describe Fareed Zakaria’s latest column for the Washington Post? It’s tough to tell. And you could ask the same of the editors at the Post‘s opinion pages, who clearly saw nothing wrong with letting this apologia for the United States’ thoroughly discredited (at least for those blessed with working and/or uncorrupted brains) pre-Trump China policies see the light of day.

Zakaria’s missive, from this past Thursday, suffers two glaringly obvious flaws. First, like America’s most influential leaders from both parties for decades before 2017 the author insists on the importance of Washington building and maintaining “a serious working relationship” with a regime that has developed (with oceans of reckless American assistance) into one of the world’s “two most powerful actors.”

And former President Donald Trump’s greatest sin (which Zakaria accuses President Biden of following)? Adopting a policy toward Beijing of “open hostility and criticism” that has caused the “collapse” of “communications channels for managing tensions,” and especially during crises or near crises such as that which appears to be developing over Taiwan.

But nothing could be clearer by now than the delusional nature of these procedure-obsessed and substance-free views (which of course despite Zakaria’s claim have continually been parroted by the Biden administration.) For by now it should go without saying that China’s top priority isn’t avoiding conflict with the United States. In particular, it lacks any interest in the President’s oft-stated  objective of creating clear “guard rails” and other rules of the road that result in a safe and orderly “competition” for goals like “winning the twenty-first century” whose definition seems just as vapid, utopian – and distracting – as his administration’s “liberal global order” references.

Instead, China’s top priority is specific and concrete: increasing its power (in all dimensions) and reducing America’s in every way possible. The reason? Eliminate the greatest obstacle to its plans to ensure its decisive control over every major trend shaping the globe’s future – whether the field is military prowess or technological advance or wealth creation or the evolution of society and culture (especially through privacy-threatening progress in cyber-hacking and facial recognition technology).

Not that the Chinese are eager for conflict or even any kind of frontal challenge or showdown – especially when prevailing is still anything but guaranteed. But the ultimate objective is prevailing, and the means entail building the domestic, regional, and global conditions needed to prevail, either without firing a shot or when clashes do break out.

And not that American leaders shouldn’t make sure to maintain those communication lines with Beijing. With both countries possessing vast nuclear arsenals, lowering the odds of accidental conflict is clearly imperative.

But communication, much less broader engagement, mustn’t become an end in and of itself. History too often has shown that they encourage the (1) U.S. acceptance of empty promises; (2) rationalization of failure to achieve or preserve particular valued objectives in the here and now for the sake of payoffs stemming from a sense of mutual obligation that could be entirely unilateral and imaginary, over a time frame that tends to keep lengthening; and (3) the substitution of wishful thinking about attainable goals for gaining and maintaining the ability to deter or successfully counter specific, dangerous Chinese initiatives.

The second glaringly obvious flaw in Zakaria’s column is its exclusive reliance on former Obama administration officials to support his analysis – which makes as much as sense as citing former Carter administration officials as inflation-fighting experts.

After all, it was under Trump’s immediate predecessor that the Chinese began running wild throughout the South China Sea, pushing aggressive territorial claims and literally building islands with military facilities capable of controlling those commercially vital waters – and according to one senior U.S. admiral at the time, precisely because Beijing concluded that Obama would keep sitting on his hands.

It was also Obama who continued enabling China to pursue the predatory economic policies that badly damaged numerous manufacturing industries vital to American national security, and who turned a blind eye to the massive transfer by U.S. and foreign companies of advanced, defense-related techology to the People’s Republic.

But at least Obama “upgraded” the George W. Bush-era “Senior Dialogue” and “Strategic Economic Dialogue” in order to merge “the economic and security tracks” to “break down the barriers inside both the U.S. and Chinese governments to more effectively tackle cross-cutting issues such as climate change, development, and energy security.” Which accomplished exactly what to advance and defend American interests?

And this is where Zakaria’s editors at the Post come in. Evidently none of them thought to say something like, “Hey, Fareed. Maybe quote someone on China policy whose advice isn’t widely seen as a proven failure?”

Maybe they’re just supposed to look for stray commas and dangling participles?  I suspect that the real reason is that they’re part of the same group-thinking, self-perpetuating globalist Blob that keeps working overtime to ensure that the American public is never exposed to any genuinely fresh ideas about promoting the United States’ security, prosperity, and optimal place in the world – and whose  decades-long record of squandering the nation’s blood and treasure on behalf of one grandiose goal after another is its only claim to success.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Slower Growth and More Hiring in U.S. Manufacturing, Too

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When it comes both to the U.S. economy in general and domestic manufacturing in particular, this morning’s official jobs report (for July) strongly supported a widely held supposition of economists – that employment is a lagging indicator of trouble.

That’s because laying off workers supposedly is seen as a last resort by businesses facing bad times, and the new results for non-farm payrolls (the U.S. government’s definition of the national jobs universe) seems to have validated this view in spades. Even though the economic growth has been slowing dramatically from last year’s rapid pace, employers boosted their headcounts by a stunning 528,000 last month (including 471,000 in the private sector). And even though inflation-adjusted American manufacturing production has fallen for the last two data months (May and June – the July results will come out August 16), U.S.-based industry added workers for the fifteenth straight month.

Indeed, July’s 30,000 increase in manufacturing jobs was the biggest monthly gain since April’s 61,000. And the numbers included the best hiring month of all time (or at least since that data series began in 1990) for the big pharmaceuticals and medicines industry. Moreover, revisions left the solid results of June and May virtually unchanged.

As a result, domestic manufacturing employment is 0.32 percent higher than its level in February, 2020 – just before the CCP Virus struck the U.S. economy in force and sent economic activity spiraling downward. Last month, when it finally regained its pre-pandemic jobs levels, the net gain was 0.09 percent.

Since July’s overall jobs improvement was so great, manufacturing is no longer the economy’s post-pandemic employment champion. That title has passed again to the total private sector, where payrolls are now 0.49 percent higher than in February, 2020. But manufacturing’s net job creation pace continues to exceed that of the non-farm economy (which includes the public sector). Its workforce is just 0.02 percent larger than just before the pandemic’s arrival.

The huge July surge in non-farm and private sector net hiring did depress manufacturing’s share of those workforces – from 9.86 percent of private sector jobs to 9.85 percent, and from 8.42 percent of non-farm jobs to 8.41 percent. But manufacturing employment is still up in relative terms since February, 2020 – climbing from 9.83 percent of private sector employment and 8.38 percent of non-farm employment.

Job-creation winners abounded throughout manufacturing’s major sectors in July, with the standouts being:

>fabricated metals products, where payrolls grew by 4,200. Revisions, however, continued to be weak, with June’s sequential loss remaining at 600; May’s originally reported 7,100 surge revised lower first to 6,900 and now to 6,600 (still the best since February’s 9,300 pop); and April’s results staying at a twice downgraded 1,400. Employment in this big sector is now 2.04 percent below its immediate pre-pandemic levels, versus the 2.31 percent shortfall calculable last month;

>miscellaneous durable goods (the major category containing many of the key medical devices used to combat the virus), which added 3,700 workers in its strongest monthly performance since last November’s 10,400. But revisions were on balance negative here, too, with June’s initially reported 2,400 job growth now judged to have been 1,700, May’s initially upgraded 1,300 advance downgraded to 1,000, and only April’s results breaking the pattern, with its upgraded 600 job loss staying unchanged.

Miscellaneous goods’ workforce is now 2.79 percent higher than in February, 2020, versus the 2.36 percent calculable last month;

>chemicals, which remained on a hot streak last month. Its companies added 3,700 employees on month in July, its June performance was revised way up from a 1,200 improvement to 4,500, its initially downgraded May rise upgraded to 5,100 (the greatest improvement since January’s 5,500), and April’s increase settling at 1,700 after being first reported as 1,000. As of July, 5.84 percent more workers were employed in the chemicals industry than in February, 2020, versus the 4.83 percent calculable last month; 

>machinery, which RealityChek regulars know is a bellwether for the rest of manufacturing and the whole economy because of how widely its products are used. Its employment increased by 3,400 on month in July; June’s initially reported 1,000 rise is now pegged as 1,600; May’s initially reported 3,200 job decrease has now ben revised all the way up to a jobs gain of 200; and April’s final total stayed at a twice downgraded 5,800. Consequently, machinery employment has rebounded to within 1.47 percent of its immediate pre-pandemic level, versus the 2.05 percent shortfall calculable last month; and 

>computer and electronics products, which contains shortage-plagued semiconductor sector, also boosted its employment by 3,400 sequentially in July. June’s initially reported 2,300 net new job creation is now judged to have been 2,000, but May’s totals were revised up a second time, to 5,300 (its best monthly performance since the 6,300 recorded in May, 2020, during the economy’s strong bounceback from the first CCP virus wave), and April’s thrice upgraded figure remained the same at 4,900. This progress pushed headcounts in this sector 0.41 percent above their February, 2020 levels, versus the 0.11 percent calculable last month.

The worst performers among July’s few maufacturing losers:

>paper and paper products, where employment fell month-to-month by 1,200. At the same time, June’s initially reported 1,200 job increase was upgraded to 1,500; May’s advance was revised down but still remained at an increase of 700; and April’s initially downwardly revised 1,300 employment rise stayed at an upwardly revised 2,100 increase. Nonetheless, there are now 0.86 percent fewer jobs in paper and paper products compared with February, 2020, versus the 0.22 percent dip calculable last month;

>textile mills, whose July employment was off by 600. Revisions were mixed, with June’s initially reported jobs bump of 700 now judged to have been 300, but May’s initially reported payroll decrease of 700 now upgraded to a loss of 400, and April’s upgraded 800-job increase remaining the same. Since just before the pandemic arrived,, however, textile mill jobs have shrunk by 6.18 percent, versus the 5.15 percent calculable last month; and

>furniture and related products, where headcounts sank by 600 on month. Worse, revisions on balance were decidedly negative. June’s initially reported employment improvement of 100 is now considered to be a drop of 1,100; May’s results, first reported as a 1,000 jump, were downgraded a second time to a mere 100 advance; and April’s initially reported 1,100 drop have been revised up only to 900 job loss. Whereas as of last month, the furniture complex’s workforce had risen to 0.60 higher than its February, 2020 level, it’s now sunk back to 0.03 percent lower.

As always, the most detailed employment data for pandemic-related industries are one month behind those in the broader categories, and most turned in performances even better than manufacturing as a whole.

The semiconductor industry is still struggling with the aforementioned shortages that are hampering so many other parts of the economy. But the 1,700 jobs it added on month in June were the most since the 1,800 in January, 2019, and revisions were positive. May’s initially reported 800 jobs gain is now pegged as having been 1,000 and April’s first reported 100 increase has been upgraded more than ten-fold – to 1,100.

The upshot seems to be that the recent high profile announcements of new domestic microchip fab construction are showing up in the employment data. As of last month, the sector’s payrolls were only 2.20 percent higher than just before the pandemic’s large-scale onset (though in fairness, semiconductor employment actually rose during the steep 2020 downturn). As of today, however, employment is up 3.22 percent during that period. (Note: The 1,400 semiconductor job growth I said last month took place in December, 2021 in fact came in the previous December. Apologies for the error.)

In surgical appliances and supplies (which includes so many of the personal protective equipment and other medical goods so widely used to fight the CCP Virus), June employment dropped by 800 – these companies’ worst monthly performance since last July’s 1,100 decline. At least revisions were positive. May’s initially reported gain of 400 is now estimated at 500, and April’s figure stayed at an upgraded loss of 100. The surgical appliances and supplies sector now employs 3.69 percent more workers than in February, 2020; last month, this increase had been 4.36 percent.

The pharmaceuticals and medicines industry, by contrast, generated record-smashing net job creation in June. The 4,300 rise was the biggest monthly total ever in a data series that goes back to 1990, and greatly eclipsed the old mark of 3,200 recorded in September, 2019. Revisions, moreover, were excellent, with May’s initially reported 100 payroll decline now raised all the way up to a 1,200 gain, and April’s increase remaining at an upgraded 1,500. Headcounts in these businesses are now 11.58 percent higher than just before the pandemic, versus the 10.10 percent calculable last month.

The much smaller medicines subsector containing vaccines performed well on the jobs front, too, hiring 1,100 net new workers in June. In addition, May’s initially reported 600 increase is now judged to have been 700, and April’s monthly improvement stayed at 1,100. This subsector’s workforce has now expanded by 26.29 percent since just before the pandemic arrived in force, as opposed to the 24.47 percent calculable last month.

An aerospace cluster hit especially hard by CCP Virus-related travel restrictions experienced another robust employment month in June.

Aircraft companies hired 1,500 net new workers on month, and revisions were excellent as well. May’s initially reported net new hires figure was upgraded from 1,300 to 1,600 – their best such performance since last June’s increase of 4,400 (mis-reported last month as a rise of 4,000). And April’s advance remained at an upgraded 500. As a result, the aircraft workforce is only 9.64 percent smaller than just before the pandemic arrived, versus the 10.30 percent calculable last month.

Aircraft engines and engine parts jobs were up by 800 sequentially in June, May’s initially reported increase of 700 was revised up to 900, but April’s results stayed at a downwardly revised 800. This improvement enabled employment at these firms to come within 9.81 percent of their February, 2020 levels, versus the 10.91 percent calculable last month.

These increases were mirrored in the non-engine aircraft parts and equipment industry, which added 600 workers on month. May’s initially reported 300 jobs increase remained unrevised as did April’s upgraded 400 increase. The non-engine aircraft parts and equipment sectors, as a result, crept to within 14.62 percent of their employment levels of February, 2020, versus the 15.14 percent calculable last month.

The big questions for American workers, and domestic industry as a whole including manufacturing, are whether economic growth will really continue to deteriorate further (here’s a recent forecast that it won’t, at least in the third quarter); and if it does, will businesses continue to “hoard” labor. Let me know if there’s anyone you trust to provide accurate answers.