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This morning’s Federal Reserve industrial production report provided further evidence that domestic U.S. manufacturing is moving past a spring rough patch. Rebounding also – output in many of the metals-using industries supposedly being decimated by President Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel.

As usual, though, because reliable data is so difficult to come by, the impact of U.S. duties on imports from China is much harder to gauge. But certainly there’s no reason to believe claims that industries using tariff-ed Chinese inputs are experiencing anything close to the damage widely reported.

Not that U.S.-based manufacturing is out of the woods. Its real output in June did improve on a monthly basis by 0.43 percent – its best such performance since December’s 0.64 percent gain. But domestic industry remains in a technical recession, with inflation-adjusted production down 0.36 percent since August – a stretch longer than the two straight quarters of cumulative decline that qualify as a downturn for most economists.

The table below presents the output data for the major metals-using sectors for the period since April, 2018 – the first full month in which the steel and aluminum tariffs were in place. As usual, the numbers for manufacturing overall are used as a control group.

                                             April thru April      April thru May      April thru June

overall manufacturing:          -0.14 percent        +0.11 percent         +0.54 percent

durables manufacturing:       +0.60 percent        +0.68 percent         +0.98 percent

fabricated metals products:   +1.93 percent        +1.14 percent         +1.09 percent

machinery:                             -1.28 percent        +0.91 percent          +0.12 percent

automotive:                            -3.94 percent         -1.75 percent          +1.05 percent

major appliances:                   -8.89 percent         -1.64 percent           -5.99 percent

aircraft and parts:                  +3.25 percent        +1.17 percent           +2.37 percent

These figures make clear that better constant-dollar output has been achieved during the last two months for manufacturing as a whole, for durable goods manufacturing (the super-category that contains most of the main metals-using sectors) and for three of the five leading specific metals-users. Especially interesting are the comeback being staged by major appliances (which face both metals tariffs and separate levies on large household clothes washers and dryers that began in February, 2018), and the deterioration apparent in aerospace (which arguably is being undercut by the safety problems experienced by Boeing).

Nonetheless, applause should be muted. For earlier in the post-metals tariffs periods, these metals users were clear production out-performers.

Statistics related to the China tariffs (whose first full month in effect was last August, 2018) continues to be plagued by great variations concerning the tariff-ed goods’ role as inputs for a wide range of domestic U.S. industries, uncertainties stemming from the differing classification systems used in the U.S. Trade Representative’s official tariff list and by the Federal Reserve in classifying manufacturing industries, and both the shorter duration of the levies and the increase in coverage since the first tranche was announced.

Keeping these enormous caveats in mind, here are results for a handful of sectors reasonably certain to have faced tariff pressure since last August. Each column measuring real output changes since last August.

                                                Aug thru April       Aug thru May      Aug thru May

overall manufacturing:            -1.03 percent         -0.79 percent        -0.36 percent

ball bearings:                           -1.77 percent         -2.62 percent        -2.89 percent

industrial heating equip:          -8.00 percent         -4.13 percent        -9.04 percent

farm machinery & equip:      -10.27 percent         -7.51 percent        -6.44 percent

oil/gas drilling platform pts:  +2.41 percent         +3.93 percent       +2.13 percent

On the one hand, these numbers provide the tariff opponents with some ammunition for claiming harmful effects from the levies, but not much. Two of the four specific sectors have lost momentum compared with the rest of manufacturing (ball bearings and industrial heating equipment), one has gained (farm machinery and equipment), and once has displayed a slight momentum loss – but also major monthly variation.

On the other hand, given that widespread (though highly uneven) use of Chinese inputs, the recent bounce-back in overall manufacturing production indicates that, if the China duties have been holding industry back – because of increased uncertainty or whatever other reasons have been offered – the impact has been both minimal and offset by other sources of strength. If true, that’s hardly a trivial consideration in judging the wisdom of and prospects for the Trump China trade war – since with each new batch of its own data, China is finding it more difficult to make that claim about its own economy.

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