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Today’s Federal Reserve industrial production report (for April) is making clearer than ever that if the U.S. economy is headed for a recession or a major growth slowdown, domestic manufacturing won’t deserve significant blame unless it takes a major nosedive before too long.

The report showed that despite the Ukraine war, despite ongoing supply chain snags, despite torrid inflation, and despite Federal Reserve plans to cool these price rises with interest rate hikes that will almost have to moderate growth if they work, U.S.-based industry increased output for the seventh straight month – and by a thoroughly respectable 0.75 percent.

Moreover, modest and mixed revisions left those strong recently results entirely intact. As a result, since February, 2020 – the last full data month before the CCP Virus’ arrival in force began upending the economy – domestic manufacturing has grown in real terms by 5.07 percent, up from the 4.42 percent calculable from last month’s release. In addition, in constant dollars, these sectors’ production is now within 2.29 percent of its all-time high – reached in December, 2007, just as the Great Recession triggered by the global financial crisis was beginning.

The list of April’s main manufacturing growth leaders was headed by the volatile automotive sector, but many of the biggest industry sub-sectors tracked by the Fed enjoyed healthy expansions last month.

Especially encouraging about the combined performance of vehicle and parts makers – which continue to be plagued by the global semiconductor shortage – was the follow-through. Their vigorous April sequential 3.92 percent after-inflation output increase followed a March gain upgraded from 7.80 percent to 8.28 percent, and that represented the biggest monthly advance since last October’s 10.64 percent. And that result followed a September tumble of 6.32 percent. Moreover, February’s big monthly dropoff was upgraded again, to a 3.86 percent loss.

All told, price-adjusted automotive output in April moved above its February, 2020 immediate pre-pandemic level (by 0.77 percent) for the first time since July, 2020.

A banner April also was registered by aerospace and miscellaneous transportation equipment companies. They boosted inflation-adjusted production by a sequential 2.15 percent. But March’s initially reported 1.90 percent after-inflation increase – previously the best monthly performance since last July’s 4.21 percent jump – is now judged to be a negligible 0.08 percent rise, February’s downgraded 1.64 percent real production improvement, however, was revised up to 1.82 percent, leaving these businesses 17.28 percent larger than in February, 2020 – as opposed to the 16.43 percent growth calculable from last month’s Fed report.

Inflation-adjusted primary metals production rose on month by 1.36 percent in April, and March’s initially reported 1.69 percent sequential drop – the biggest since January’s 2.53 percent plunge – is now judged to be just 0.75 percent. And February’s already upwardly revised constant dollar production surge was upgraded again – to a 2.94 percent figure that’s still the best since last April’s 3.48 percent. After-inflation production of these metals is now 4.01 percent greater than in February, 2020, compared with the 1.16 percent calculable last month;

Wood products output expanded nicely in real terms, too – by 1.13 percent sequentially in April. This improvement pushed this industry’s price-adjusted production to 7.85 percent above its immediate pre-pandemic level.

And consistent with manufacturing’s overall output winning streak, machinery production continued in April continued to excel as well – although more unevenly. Real output in this bellwether sector – whose products are used so widely throughout the economy – climbed by 0.85 percent sequentially in April. And although March’s results were revised way down from 0.78 percent growth to 0.36 percent contraction, February’s previously reported and downgraded 0.54 percent improvement was revised way up to 1.17 percent. As a result, the sector is now 8.31 percent bigger after inflation than in immediately pre-pandemic February, 2020.

The biggest April manufacturing growth losers were:

>plastics and rubber products, where a March real output increase of a sharply downgraded 0.58 percent was followed by a 0.79 percent decrease that was the biggest monthly decline since December’s 0.94 percent. February, moreover, saw another discouraging revision – from a 3.14 percent constant dollar monthly advance to 2.80 percent. At least that result still was the best since August, 2020’s 3.85 percent. Consequently, this sector is now just 1.05 percent bigger in real output terms than in February, 2020 – as opposed to the 3.56 percent calculable last month;

>non-metallic mineral products, where inflation-adjusted production dipped for a second straight month – this time by 0.67 percent. March’s drop, however, is now pegged at only 0.76 percent instead of 1.15 percent, and February’s upgraded real output burst of 3.94 percent is now estimated at 4.42 percent, its best such performance since the 9.19 percent increase in May, 2020, early during the rapid recovery from the steep recession caused by the CCP Virus’ first wave and associated economic and behavioral curbs. But whereas as of last month’s industrial production report, these sectors had grown by an inflation-adjusted 3.28 percent since February, 2020, this figure is now down to 2.58 percent.

>electrical equipment, appliances, and components, where real output fell for a second straight month. The April sequential decrease was 0.60 percent and followed a 0.04 percent March drop that was first reported as a 1.03 percent increase. Fortunately, February’s results were upgraded a second time, to a 2.03 percent advance that’s still the sector’s best since last July’s 3.24 percent. But the net result is a group of industries that’s now only 3.55 percent larger in real output terms than in February, 2020, as opposed to the 5.55 percent calculable last month; and

>furniture and related products, whose price-adjusted output decreased in April for the second straight month. The 0.60 percent monthly retreat means that these sectors have shrunk by an inflation-adjusted 1.56 percent since February, 2020.

Growth, however, generally tailed off in April in industries that consistently have made headlines during the pandemic.

The aircraft and aircraft parts sectors were the out-performers. Their real output rose on month in April by a strong 1.67 percent. But even here, March’s initially reported even better 2.31 percent increase is now pegged at just 0.47 percent. The February estimate, however, bounced back from a downgraded 1.13 percent gain to an improvement of 1.34 percent, helping the sector to register 16.37 percent real production growth since February, 2020, compared with the 15.86 percent calculable last month.

Inflation-adjusted output in the big pharmaceuticals and medicines industry dropped sequentially in April for the third time in the last four months. More encouragingly, that 0.20 percent decline followed March growth that was revised up from 1.17 percent to 1.23 percent. But February’s 1.15 percent decrease is now estimated at a still dreary 0.96 percent retreat, and January’s previously upgraded 0.45 percent increase is now thought to be a contraction of 0.26 percent. So where as of last month, real pharmaceuticals and medicines output was reported as 14.75 percent higher than in immediately pre-pandemic-y February, 2020, that growth is now down to 14.64 percent.

As for medical equipment and supplies, these sectors suffered their first monthly production decline (0.06 percent) since December’s 0.68 percent. In addition, March’s previously reported 1.81 percent rise was revised down to 1.28 percent, February’s previously upgraded 1.73 percent increase was cut back to 1.46 percent, and January’s upwardly revised gains were trimmed from 3.28 percent to 2.94 percent. As a result, these industries’ post-February, 2020 real production increase is now estimated at 8.92 percent, down from the 10.28 percent improvement calculable last month.

Even semiconductor output took a hit in April. The shortage-plagued sector saw real production sink by 1.85 percent sequentially last month – its worst such performance since last June’s 1.62 percent. Revisions were mixed, with March’s initially reported 1.99 percent constant dollar advance reduced to 1.83 percent; February’s big jump upgraded again to 2.91 percent; and January’s fractional 0.05 percent increase revised up to 0.06 percent. These results still left price-adjusted semiconductor production up 23.38 percent since February, 2020, but that figure is down from the 25.99 percent calculable last month.

An entirely new hurdle to domestic manufacturing output could appear in late June. That’s when the Fed’s data gatherers tell us they’ll issue their next annual benchmark revision – which could reveal that U.S.-based industry’s performance has been weaker in recent years than they’d thought. At the same time, it could turn out to be stronger.  Given how domestic manufacturing has overcome so many other headwinds recently, that would be an upside surprise that I at least wouldn’t find completely surprising.   

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