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A U.S. recession is either imminent or already here – that’s the main message being strongly suggested by today’s release by the Federal Reserve on inflation-adjusted manufacturing production (for December).

Not only did industry’s real output sink by 1.30 percent sequentially – the worst such result since February, 2021’s 3.64 percent weather-affected plunge. But November’s initially reported 0.62 percent retreat was revised down to one of 1.10 percent.

Two straight monthly drops of one percent or more each haven’t been recorded by U.S.-based manufacturers since the February through April, 2020 period – when the arrival of the CCP Virus began roiling American life and the national economy, and indeed threw the latter into a deep downturn.

The new figures pushed price-adjusted U.S. manufacturing production into contraction for full-year 2022 – by 0.41 percent. That’s a major deterioration from the 4.19 percent constant dollar gain in 2021 – the strongest such showing since the 6.48 percent achieved in 2010, during the recovery from the Global Financial Crisis and ensuing Great Recession.

Moreover, since just before the pandemic arrived in force in the United States (February, 2020), after-inflation manufactuing has now grown by just 1.21 percent. As of last month’s industrial production release, this figure stood at 3.07 percent.

Of the twenty broadest manufacturing sub-sectors tracked by the Fed, only three boosted monthly inflation-adjusted production in December: aeropace and miscellaneous transportation equipment (0.96 percent), primary metals (0.84 percent), and nononmetallic mineral products (0.65 percent).

The biggest losers among their 17 other counterparts were machinery and printing and related support activities (3.37 percent each), and petroleum and coal products (3.13 percent).

Especially concerning, and continuing a pattern identified last month – for machinery and printing, these results were the worst since April, 2020, at the peak of the CCP Virus’ devastating first wave, when their real output collapsed month-to-month by 18.64 percent and 23.10 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the monthly decrease in petroleum and coal products was its biggest since weather-affected February, 2021.

And as known by RealityChek regulars, machinery’s tumble last month is a particularly bright red flag. Because its products are used so widely in sectors inside and outside of manufacturing – including by growing companies or firms counting on continued or faster growth – its fortunes are seen as a good predictor of the economy’s future. Therefore, a big machinery production decrease (the second in a row) could well mean that business activity across the national board is at least slowing markedly and won’t be reviving any time soon.

The December numbers were only somewhat better for sectors of special interest since the CCP Virus’ arrival stateside. Sequential increases were registered in pharmaceuticals and medicine (by 1.10 percent) and aircraft and parts (by 1.49 percent). But price-adjusted output fell in automotive (by 1.03 percent), the shortage-plagued semiconductor industry (by 1.20 percent), and the medical equipment and supplies sector that encompasses products heavily used to fight the pandemic (by 2.50 percent).

In addition, the slippage in medical equipment and supplies was one of those that was the greatest since the peak of the CCP Virus’ first wave (when it nosedived by 17.76 percent).

Since manufacturing is only about fifteen or sixteen percent of the total U.S. economy (depending on how you count output), a downturn in industry doesn’t necessarily presage an overall recession. But the new industrial production statistics aren’t the only signs of shrinkage. Consumer spending comprises nearly 71 percent of the economy according to the latest (third quarter, 2021) data, and today’s advance official retail sales report (for December) indicates that they’ve now fallen consecutively for two months. Possibly weaker inflation (indicated most recently by today’s wholesale price report, which I’ll post about tomorrow), also signals gloomy times ahead.

Since the new Fed manufacturing production results will be revised several times over the next few months, it’s possible that the real picture in industry could brighten somewhat. But likelier, in my view (as I wrote yesterday), is for a recession-averse Washington to move to stimulate consumer spending without seeking similar results for production – in other words, a time-tested formula for stagflation at best for the foreseeable future.

P.S. As alert readers may have noticed, this post contains many fewer manufacturing production details than its recent predecessors. My aim is to ensure that I can get this info to you on a same-day basis. Do you like this simpler format better? Or should I return to going deeper into the weeds? Please let me know if you get a chance.