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Do the April data just released by the Federal Reserve show that U.S. manufacturing output is settling into a post-CCP Virus normal? Despite achieving solid (0.42 percent) month-to-month growth in real terms, I’m not so sure. That’s mainly because although one of the big drags on domestic industry’s recent performance that resulted from weather rather than economic fundamentals is clearly past us, the impact continues of similar, likely temporary, developments that economists call “exogenous shocks.” And although plainly temporary, they may turn out to be pretty long-lasting.

The drag that’s out of the way is the amazingly harsh winter weather that crippled state economies in the south central states. Even so, the Fed now estimates the damage produced on a nation-wide basis as having been even worse than initially judged. The monthly plunge in February after-inflation manufacturing production keyed by the blizzards and power outages is now pegged at 4.12 percent – down from the original -3.12 percent and last month’s -3.72 percent. That’s still the wors monthly performance since April’s 15.83 percent nosedive, during the height of the pandemic and the depths of the recession.

The silver lining is that the March rebound first judged to be 2.79 percent is now believed to have been 3.22 percent.

So that 0.42 percent sequential increase in price-adjusted manufacturing production for April could be interpreted as an end to the winter aftershocks period. Except the Fed is now telling us that a new problem – the recent global semiconductor shortage – depressed U.S. automotive output so greatly last month (by 4.28 percent), that without such disruption, total constant dollar factory production would have been nearly twice as strong (0.75 percent). Moreover, the microchip shortage shows no sign of ending any time soon. And don’t forget about those still congested West Coast ports

According to the Fed, moreover, U.S.-based industry seems to be dealing with another distinctly non-normal situation – those “supply chain difficulties” generated by the same dramatic reopening of the economy that are distorting the inflation figures. Much more government money is bound to be injected into the economy on top of the already enormous virus relief and stimulus funds that have already been provided (and are still working their way through the system), So manufacturers and other businesses will surely continue facing various bottlenecks as they all try to keep up with the new customer demand all at once. Of course, complicating matters still further – and prolonging the return to normality – is that very massive government spending, which all else equal will keep propping up that demand and manufacturing and other output.

Thanks to the April advance and the cumulative impact of the revisions, domestic manufacturing production is now up 23.27 percent after inflation from its low last April, and is now back to within 1.42 percent of its last pre-pandemic reading in February, 2020.

One sign for manufacturing and the rest of the economy that remained genuinely bullish in April was the 0.65 percent sequential output growth of the big machinery sector – whose products are used extensively not only throughout the rest of manufacturing, but in big non-manufacturing sectors like construction and agriculture. That April increase was much smaller than March’s 3.55 percent surge – the best such performance since July’s 5.56 percent jump. But the March result was upgraded from an initially eported 2.87 percent. And in inflation-adjusted terms, the machinery sector is now 3.72 percent bigger than in February, 2020, just before the pandemic arrived.

Other significant April manufacturing production winners were the big chemical industry (up 3.17 percent on month, but still recovering from the huge 8.64 percent sequential output drop resulting mainly from those winter storms), primary metals (whose 1.68 percent monthly improvement followed a 2.20 percent rise that’s still left the sector 3.11 percent smaller in real terms than just before the pandemic), and petroleum and coal products (1.57 percent – but in a chemicals-like recovery situation).

The biggest losers were miscellaneous non-durable goods (off 1.08 percent) and plastics and rubber products (down 0.83 percent).

Although reopening measures in the United States and around the world are reviving air travel, the April Fed report shows that Boeing’s continuing production troubles may have again undercut growth in the big American aerospace industry. Price-adjusted output in aircraft and parts dipped by 0.23 sequentially last month – the first such decrease since December’s 1.43 percent. And March’s initially reported 4.09 percent increase has been downwardly revised all the way to 1.92 percent. Nonetheless, after inflation, aircraft and parts production is still up 4.98 percent from its final pre-CCP Virus levels.

Another big industry that should be benefitting from reopening-related headwinds – pharmaceuticals and medicines – also delivered a disappointing performance in April, especially since it includes vaccines. Real output rose by just 0.33 percent on month, and March’s initially reported 2.90 percent rise was trimmed back to 2.87 percent. In addition, previous and dramatic downward revisions for January and February were downgraded on net yet again – though modestly. Consequently, inflation-adjusted production in the sector has grown by 5.95 percent during the pandemic.

Growth in the vital medical equipment and supplies sector – which includes virus-fighting items like face masks, face masks, protective gowns, and ventilators – remained nothing to write about either. April’s real growth was a so-so (0.42 percent). And although March’s initially estimated 0.61 percent constant dollar output increase got a nice upgrade to 1.11 percent, February’s results – which had been revised up from a 0.56 percent decline to a 0.44 percent drop – was revised back down to a 0.64 percent decrease. Consequently, real output here is just 0.56 percent higher than in that final pre-CCP Virus month of February, 2020, despite all the national talk of the need to improve America’s health security.

An optimistic outlook for domestic manufacturing still seems justified for me, if only because government-fueled growth and reopening still seem to be the most powerful influences on the entire economy, and President Biden has still kept in place the sweeping Trump tariffs are still pricing hundreds of billions of dollars of manufactured goods from China out of the U.S. market. That latest Boeing glitch seems to have been resolved. The need for more protective medical equipment and more vaccines (especially abroad) certainly haven’t gone away for good . And maybe a serious infrastructure rebuild and expansion is on the way. 

But just as a big enough number of anecdotes can deserve being seen as a trend, a big enough number of temporary disruptions can deserve being seen as a new, and more difficult, normal.