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What a day for U.S. manufacturing data! It no doubt raises major questions over whether President Trump’s tariff-centric trade policies are finally showing signs of damaging American domestic manufacturing (as has been widely claimed for months, despite an almost total lack of statistical evidence). Unfortunately, it’s a mixed and pretty muddy verdict that’s delivered by the separate reports from the Census Bureau (on national spending on the kinds of “core” capital goods made by U.S. manufacturers), the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank (on manufacturing in the mid-Atlantic states), and private sector consultancy Markit.com (on the overall state of domestic industry).

To be sure, the headline figures collectively were worrisome. The Census reading was both worse than expected, and strengthens the case that there’s been a softening on business expenditures on machinery and equipment not meant to build defense-related products (which, after all, reflect government decisions, not economic fundamentals) or aircraft (where demand is thought to be unusually volatile, and therefore likely to produce results that distort the figures for industries as a whole).

The Philadelphia Fed reading was the first such monthly reading since May, 2016 showing regional industry to be contracting rather than expanding. And the Markit report – something of a national version of the Philadelphia survey – signaled “the slowest improvement in business conditions since September, 2017.”

But the obstacles to drawing any broad conclusions, much less trade- and tariff-related conclusions – are formidable to say the least.

In the first place, it’s always dangerous to place major emphasis on a single month’s worth of results. In addition, the three surveys cover different time periods. The Philly Fed and Markit results purport to show conditions for February. The Census capital spending release only brings the story up to December. Not to mention that it came 35 days late due to the partial federal government shutdown.

Moreover, the Markit and Census results are preliminary. Revisions are rarely game-changers, but can sometimes turn contractionary readings expansionary – and vice versa.

It’s also crucial to distinguish between absolute drops in activity and relative drops. The Philly Fed report – which provides the most recent data – and the Census results describe absolute contractions in their indicators. But the Markit headline figure remains in expansion territory – it’s just not quite so expansionary.

As RealityChek regulars are used to reading, “Don’t ignore the internals.” And all three releases were filled with intriguing details. On the positive side, for example, the February Philly Fed report found that hiring by regional manufacturers not only kept increasing – it increased at a faster pace. That’s unusual for a manufacturing sector that’s supposedly contracting. And in fact, respondents professed to be slightly more optimistic about their future prospects in February than they were in January. Markit also reported strong February manufacturing employment along with other signs that “manufacturers remain firmly in expansion mode.” 

On the negative side, the Philly Fed reported big drops (both into absolute contraction) in both new orders and shipments. The former in particular seems like bad news for future business. And the Census capital spending results also are viewed as a forward-looking indicator – although they’re two months old.

Most challenging of all is figuring out what role the Trump tariffs have been playing, since they’re hardly the only development influencing manufacturing’s health. The economist who writes the Markit reports sums up the situation aptly, in my opinion:

Businesses that experienced a soft patch for production cited a range of factors holding back growth, including adverse weather, worries about the global economic outlook and ongoing international supply chain uncertainty.” That last phrase refers to trade conflicts and their possible impacts. But of course, even assuming that such uncertainty was indeed a major cause of the soft patch, let’s not forget that soft patches often firm up quickly.

And don’t forget the Federal Reserve! Last October, Chairman Jerome Powell spooked investors by suggesting that the central bank would keep raising interest rates well into this year. Such “tightening” usually slows down growth by increasing the cost of borrowing for consumers and businesses. But in mid-November, Powell indicated he was having second thoughts and, after financial markets suffered through a terrible December, in early January convinced investors that he was serious about continuing easy money with an early January statement.

So as I see it, there’s still no significant evidence that the Trump tariffs themselves have already been hurting American manufacturing, and no compelling evidence yet that they will. But since no one has a whizbang crystal ball, and the stakes are so big, the intellectually honest course to take is to keep monitoring the data and report on them as accurately and as dispassionately as possible.