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Just as earlier in this CCP Virus-whipsawed economy of ours, as goes the U.S. automotive sector, so goes domestic manufacturing when it comes to output (at least to a great extent). That’s the main story told not only by the inflation-adjusted manufacturing production figures released by the Federal Reserve this morning (for October), but by virtually this entire data series this year.

Domestic industry grew in price-adjusted terms by a healthy 1.30 percent on month in October, snapping a two-month losing streak, and the results were pulled up powerfully by combined vehicle and parts production – which shot up by 10.98 percent. That was its biggest sequential increase since July, 2020’s 29.39 percent, when industry and the entire economy were snapping back strongly from the steep but short virus-induced recession. Without this automotive spurt, real manufacturing output would still have risen nicely in October, but that 0.62 percent monthly gain was less than half the total with automotive.

Complicating the picture still further: Mainly because of the semiconductor shortage, after-inflation automotive output has been on a nothing less than a roller coaster this year. Here are the monthly results for 2021 so far:

January:         +0.63 percent

February:      -10.65 percent

March:            -3.99 percent

April:              -7.23 percent

May:              +5.20 percent

June:               -4.97 percent

July:               +8.54 percent

August:           -2.95 percent

September:     -7.12 percent

October:       +10.98 percent

And for a change, revisions didn’t make a big difference in either the recent overall manufacturing or automotive statistics.

Aside from automotive, manufacturing’s biggest growth winners among the big categories tracked by the Fed were petroleum and coal products (up 4.97 percent), chemicals (up 1.93 percent), printing and related support actvities (1.41 percent) and aerospace and miscellaneous transportation (1.36 percent).

The biggest losers? Electrical equipment, appliances and components (down 1.53 percent), machinery (down 1.27 percent), and miscellaneous durable goods (a grouping that includes much pandemic-related medical equipment – down 0.88 percent).

The machinery drop – the biggest since February’s 2.59 percent – was particularly discouraging, as its products are used throughout manufacturing and big non-manufacturing sectors (like agriculture and construction) alike.

As for manufacturing industries that have been prominent in the news during the pandemic, their October performance was decidedly unimpressive.

Aircraft and parts was the best of the lot. Their real output expanded by 1.43 percent on month in October, but September’s initially reported 1.83 percent increase was revised down considerably, to 0.45 percent. In all, price-adjusted aircraft and parts production is now 14.59 percent above its levels in February, 2020 – the U.S. economy’s last full pre-CCP Virus data month.

Moreover, the sector’s giant, Boeing, has had an excellent news week this past week – especially reports that China may end its two-year ban on buying the company’s jets. So even though aircraft and parts output after inflation has already topped February, 2020’s levels by 14.59 percent, even better times may lie ahead.

Pharmaceuticals and medicines, however, have lost significant growth momentum recently. Following August’s strong (but downwardly revised) 2.46 percent sequential real production increase, the sector has now slumped for two straight months. September’s previously reported 0.74 percent decline is now pegged as a 1.04 percent drop, and inflation-adjusted production sank another 0.51 percent in October. As a result, measured in constant dollars, these industries are just 11.86 percent bigger than just before the pandemic struck – and this despite massive vaccine production.

The news was only slightly better in the crucial medical equipment and supplies sector – which includes virus-fighting items like face masks, protective gowns, and ventilators. After-inflation production was off 1.08 percent in October from September levels, and September’s own initially reported 1.53 percent real monthly output growth is now estimated at just 0.73 percent. Since February, 2020, therefore, real output of these products has advanced by just 2.57 percent.

Whereas I was somewhat pessimistic about U.S. manufacturing’s near-term prospects in my post last month on the output data, the picture now looks brighter. As mentioned just above, the aircraft industry may be back after some very difficult years caused by the CCP Virus-caused slump in travel and Boeing’s safety problems. An infrastructure bill has been passed (though its impact is unlikely to be felt in a major way for many months). Strong overall economic growth seems likely for the fourth quarter of this year. And although the pandemic is by no means over, its main growth-depressing effects may well be past.

Moreover, most of the remaining threats to domestic industry – big business tax hikes and stricter environmental and climate-change regulations – seem less likely due to Republican victories in so many of this year’s elections. And manufacturing’s continued growth seems to indicate that, however serious supply chain snags have been, and however much longer they may last, companies are managing their way through them reasonably well.

The biggest cloud hanging over manufacturing – and the entire economy – looms bigger than ever, though: a tightening of monetary policy to try to tame heated inflation that looks less transitory with each passing month, and that also could curb consumers’ so-far-raging appetites all by itself. Don’t be surprised if volatile automotive stays a major key.