, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

If you’re among the legions of tariff alarmists in America’s intertwined political, business, and media establishments, this morning’s industrial production report (for November) from the Federal Reserve turned out to be an especially cruel hoax. It’s overall results seem to reveal that President Trump’s levies on imports of steel, aluminum, and on products from China are (finally!) producing major economic data showing damage to domestic manufacturing in the form of inflation-adjusted output. But the critical details (once again) show absolutely noting of the kind.

Let’s start with the metals tariffs – which started to be imposed in late March – and the performance of industries that make heavy use of them. If the Trump tariffs are indeed going to bite, then you’d think that some evidence would be visible eight months later. But the new Fed data make clear that this evidence still hasn’t appeared. As with last month’s post on the industrial production statistics, I’m including small household appliances. I’m still increasingly convinced that they’re now so small and consequently use little in the way of steel and aluminum, they do incorporate lots of electronics – so in principle they reveal something about the China tariffs’ impact.

The data start with April (the first full month in which the metals tariffs were in place) and go through November. I’m presenting the previously reported and revised October results in order to provide a sense of the trends’ momentum. I’m also adding aircraft and parts, which I carelessly left out last month; therefore, the original October results aren’t available.

                                                    old thru Oct      new thru Oct         thru Nov

overall manufacturing:              +1.30 percent    +0.78 percent     +0.80 percent

durables manufacturing:           +1.93 percent    +1.55 percent     +1.73 percent

fabricated metals products:      +2.06 percent     +1.67 percent     +1.61 percent

machinery:                               +5.09 percent      +4.54 percent    +5.11 percent

automotive:                               -2.42 percent      -1.74 percent     -1.46 percent

small appliances:                      -6.62 percent       -8.10 percent   -10.86 percent

major appliances:                     -3.32 percent       -3.24 percent     -0.88 percent

aircraft & parts:                        not available       +3.54 percent    +3.27 percent

The good news for tariff alarmists is the overall real manufacturing growth slowdown apparent from this table, led by a significant downward revision for October. But look more closely and there’s no reason to blame the metals tariffs at all.

For if they were the main culprit, why would the slowdown be so much more modest in the durable goods sector – where so many of the biggest metals-using industries are found? Why would heavy metals-using machinery still be outperforming big-time? Why would another metals-reliant giant, automotive, be demonstrating such impressive catch-up? And how could the major appliances sector – which has also been hit with a product-specific tariff on large home laundry machines – be making up even more ground?

The details will also prove disappointing to China tariff alarmists. Starting in July, levies on $250 billion worth of imports from the People’s Republic. And so many U.S. domestically manufactured products contain parts and components and other inputs from China that it’s been easy to sell the contention that the higher prices for American industry resulting from the tariffs will backfire on the entire manufacturing sector.

Yet once more, the Fed industrial production data reveal these claims to be “truthy” (i.e, something that pushers want to believe is the case) rather than “true.” As noted last month, Chinese inputs are so widely used that I can’t perform a deep statistical dive for now. But the main manufacturing aggregates don’t bear out the “tariff-mageddon” story for the China levies, either.

As the numbers in the first table for smaller appliances indicate, there’s a case that they’ve been damaged by the China tariffs, since they surely use lots of Made in China electronic components. But the industrial production data writ large show nothing of the kind. The figures below show the changes in real output for manufacturing generally, and for its two main super-sectors, for the five months since the first China tariffs were imposed (during the first week of July) and for the five months to and including July.

                                                      March-July                       July-Nov

overall manufacturing:               +0.87 percent                 +0.52 percent

durable goods:                            +0.13 percent                 +2.01 percent

non-durable goods:                     +1.65 percent                  -0.99 percent

The obvious conclusion: Unless Chinese inputs are highly concentrated in the non-durable goods sector (and there’s no justification for this assumption), there’s a problem in non-durable goods stemming from something (or things) other than the China tariffs.  ‘

Luckily for the tariff alarmists, however, there’s no sign that they’ll be held accountable by the institution that’s supposed to be democracy’s watchdog:  the Mainstream Media.  So for the foreseeable future, in terms of what the public will be reading and hearing on trade policy, expect gloom to keep springing eternal.