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The big takeaway from today’s Federal Reserve after-inflation U.S. manufacturing data (for December) is that it may show domestic starting to suffer from the arrival into America of the super-infectious Omicron strain of the CCP Virus and the renewed economic curbs and behavioral changes it’s spurring, along with the spread of vaccine mandates in the ranks of U.S. businesses (of course, before yesterday’s Supreme Court decision striking down such policies for the private sector).

And especially discouraging: Just as Omicron began taking off, inflation-adjusted domestic output of medical equipment and supplies – including all the protective gear and treatment devices needed to fight the virus – fell sequentially at its fastest rate since the worst of the spring, 2020 pandemic-induced depression. Indeed, monthly real production in this category is now lower than in February, 2020 – the last full data month before the virus’ first variant began distorting the U.S. economy.

December’s 0.28 percent monthly decline in price-adjusted American manufacturing output represented industry’s first sequential retreat since September’s (hurricanes-affected) 0.52 percent drop. But the solid growth of recent months stayed largely unrevised.

The December results (which will remain preliminary for several more months) brought 2021’s yearly improvement in inflation-adjusted manufacturing output to 3.71 percent. That’s the best growth since 2011’s 6.48 percent, but as known by RealityChek regulars, it’s important to look at possible baseline effects nowadays. And this strong performance in part reflected the virus-fostered 1.94 percent fall-off in such growth in 2020.

The December downturn stemmed in part from problems (like the global semiconductor shortage) in the automotive sector, which shrank on month by 1.29 percent – following sequential expansion in November of a downwardly revised 1.69 percent. But even without the drag from vehicles and parts, domestic industry’s constant dollar production would still have been off by 0.22 percent.

Aside from automotive, the most important December real manufacturing growth loser by far was miscellaneous durable goods – a category that includes those pandemic-fighting essential medical devices and equipment industries. Its price-adjusted output slumped by 2.68 percent – the biggest downturn since April, 2020’s18.43 percent, during the worst of the CCP Virus’ first wave. Even so, measured by real production, the sector is 2.49 percent larger than in February, 2020, right before the pandemic’s initial major economic impact.

Other big December losers included:

>printing and related support activities, whose 1.82 percent slide was also the worst since April, 2020 (23.94 percent), and whose real output is now down by 5.14 percent since February, 2020;

>plastics and rubber products, whose 1.78 percent decrease was the worst since April, 2020 as well (19.12 percent), but that also followed seven months of strong gains. As a result, its real production is off just 1.08 percent since February, 2020; and

>petroleum and coal products, whose 1.58 percent fall-off was its worst since February’s seven percent, and whose after-inflation production is 4.49 percent lower than in February, 2020.

The biggest December winners were:

>non-metallic mineral products, which not only generated a 1.49 percent increase, but whose November inflation-adjusted output advance was revised all the way up from 1.25 percent to 3.03 percent. All the same, this sector’s constant-dollar production is still 1.32 percent lower than in February, 2020;

>wood products, whose 1.18 percent real increase in production was its best since March’s 4.05 percent, and which is now 3.03 percent bigger by this measure since February, 2020;

>the big chemicals sector, where real growth hit 0.69 percent following an upwardly revised 0.65 percent in November (from 0.50 percent), and which has grown by 7.93 percent in real terms since just before the pandemic; and – most encouragingly –

>machinery, a manufacturing bellwether because its products are so widely used throughout both industry and big non-manufacturing sectors like construction and agriculture – not to mention many services sectors. Its price-adjusted output increased by 0.68 percent sequentially in December – its best such result since July’s 2.85 percent, and revisions were unchanged on balance. Machinery production is now 5.20 percent higher than in February, 2020.

As for manufacturing industries that have been prominent in the news during the pandemic, they had a lousy December generally.

Aircraft and parts saw its monthly output down by 0.38 percent, and in stunning news, November’s initially reported 1.90 percent increase is now judged to be a 1.04 percent decrease. With October’s after-inflation production rise downgraded, too, aircraft and parts output is now just 10.71 percent higher than in February, 2020. As of last month’s Fed manufacturing data, this figure was a much higher 15.86 percent.

In pharmaceuticals and medicines, December’s 0.13 percent real output dip was the third straight monthly decline, and November and October revisions were fractionally negative on balance. Consequently, in price-adjusted production terms, these sectors were 13.42 percent larger than in February, 2020 – as opposd to the 13.54 percent calculable from last month’s industrial production report.

And as mentioned at the outset, the December results for medical equipment and supplies sector were awful – especially considering that for the next few months at least, Omicron’s metastasis will greatly increase demand for face masks, protective gowns, ventilators, and the like.

Real production of these products tumbled seqentially by 2.75 percent – the worst such performance since April, 2020’s 15.97 percent, during that first CCP Virus wave. Revisions for November and October were mildly positive, but whereas last month’s report revealed that inflation-adjusted production in these sectors was up since just before the first wave struck in force (though by a bare 0.65 percent), it’s now down by 1.50 percent. 

And let’s add another sector to the pandemic industries list – semiconductors and related devices. As implied by the category name, the numbers include more than the microchips that have been in such global short supply in recent months – and whose U.S. production revival has been such a high stated Washington, D.C. policy priority.

Still, it’s noteworthy that constant dollar output in this grouping rose a mere 0.12 percent on month in December, But it is up 16.86 percent since the pre-pandemicky February, 2020.

So far, betting against domestic manufacturing during the virus era has been a losing bet, But the headwinds for the near future at least look especially strong, topped of course by the spread of Omicron not only in the United States but in all the countries to which its manufacturers sell exports. Add to the list the apparent death of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill – which whatever its long-term economic wisdom and other effects, will certainly reduce government support for domestic economic activity – what seems like greater odds of more monetary policy tightening by the Federal Reserve sooner rather than later; and inflation that might be getting high enough to dampen U.S. consumer outlays.  

Tailwinds are by no means absent – like the beginning of spending made possible by the infrastructure bill, the still considerable amount of stimulus being provided by the Fed, and the easing of global supply chain knots. But even this last depends heavily on the medical, regulatory, and behavioral effects of Omicron in the United States and, perhaps even more important, in China, where the regime’s Zero Covid policy looks like a formula for ever broader lockdowns that will paralyze its ports and other infrastructure systems

Domestic manufacturers keep telling major surveys that they remain optimistic about the future.  (See here and here for the latest soundings.)  If anything’s certain about the circumstances they’re heading into, it’s that they’ll need every bit of this optimism to keep succeeding.