(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Bullish Signals from Manufacturing About the U.S. Economy

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U.S. machine tool orders – for anyone who’s not a manufacturing junkie, could anything sound more boring? And yet, because machine tools of various kinds are what manufacturers use to make a wide range of industrial products, their sales are a key indicator of the sector’s health, and especially its future prospects. After all, if manufacturing companies aren’t feeling optimistic about their businesses, they’re not likely to be ordering many of these generally expensive devices, either to replace worn out equipment or add capacity. If orders are rising strongly, that’s strong evidence that industrial production is likely to strengthen or at least remain strong.

And even if you don’t care much about manufacturing, machine tool orders data speak volumes about whether the economy as a whole is thriving or not – a subject that’s attracted unusual attention lately because the current American recovery has lasted so long, and because some recent statistics are pointing to a growth slowdown – or worse. More specifically, these statistics can reveal whether President Trump’s trade policies are succeeding or failing to achieve one of their prime stated goals – bolstering domestic industry.

The January numbers were released today by the machine tool trade association that tracks them, and the verdict? Thumbs up on all counts. Year-on-year, new business grew by five percent, and there was even a silver lining in the 10.5 percent monthly decline from December levels: January figures almost always fall on a monthly basis (because manufacturers tend to bunch their new orders markedly toward the end of each calendar year), and this January’s decline was half the post-1998 average. In fact, the $396 million figure was the second largest January total in the 22 years during which the industry has been compiling these statistics. Particularly noteworthy: January was the month when most of the last partial federal government shutdown took place. That’s when it was hard to find many Americans optimistic about anything.

Moreover, although these numbers are incredibly volatile month-to-month, the strong surge in machine tool orders that began in early 2017 (coinciding, incidentally, with the advent of the Trump administration) continued apace through 2018 (when he began tariff-ing imports in earnest).

Since manufacturing still only makes up a little less than 11.5 percent of the whole U.S. economy (though it punches way above its weight as a jobs creator), robust machine tool orders are hardly a guarantee against a slowdown – even a significant one. And the future of the President’s trade policy, especially regarding China, remains highly uncertain. But at best, domestic manufacturers’ interest in continuing to buy the stuff that’s used to make other stuff signals that current economic pessimism is a stretch — and that if the economy does run into trouble, neither manufacturing nor President Trump’s approach to trade (which is dominated both ways by industrial goods) will deserve much blame.

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Our So-Called Foreign Policy: Trump’s Acting Like Uncle Sucker on Alliance Burden-Sharing

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While much of the world is on pins and needles wondering whether President Trump will reach a big trade deal with China and how it will impact the U.S. economy and global commerce, Mr. Trump’s negotiating reputation has also been on the line on another major international front – America’s relations with its top security allies. And the latest reported developments add to the evidence that he’s going to fail miserably.

According to a March 8 Bloomberg.com article, the Trump administration is planning to insist that countries hosting American troops pay the full cost of these deployments, along with an extra 50 percent of that full cost for what’s described as the “privilege” of enjoying American protection.

Predictably, the allies, along with Washington, D.C.’s bipartisan globalist foreign policy establishment are sputtering with outrage – accusing the President of viewing these security relationships as lowly “transactional” relationships focused on enhancing purely American interests rather than as vital pillars of a global liberal, democratic order that since the end of World War II has benefited the United States more indirectly by promoting worldwide peace, prosperity, and democracy. In a journal article last year, I described at length why this quintessentially globalist approach to foreign policy and national security has long been creating many more big problems than it solves for a country as fundamentally secure and prosperous as the United States.

As a result, I strongly sympathize with any efforts to overhaul America’s alliances, however many specific criticisms I may have with the President’s tactics. But the most immediate problem with the Trump strategy is that the President keeps shooting himself in the foot. Specifically, he has repeatedly undercut U.S. leverage by proclaiming that he, too, views these arrangements as crucial for America to maintain.

For example, just two months ago, Mr. Trump insisted that “We’re gonna be with NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which binds the United States militarily to Europe] 100 percent ….” Last July, he declared “…I believe in NATO. I think NATO is a very important — probably the greatest ever done.” And the previous year, he explicitly endorsed the alliance’s Article V, which legally commits the United States to come to the defense of any member under outside attack.

Regarding the American alliance with South Korea, Mr. Trump told that country’s National Assembly in November, 2017 that U.S. commitment to that country’s defense represented a line “between peace and war, between decency and depravity, between law and tyranny, between hope and total despair. It is a line that has been drawn many times, in many places, throughout history. To hold that line is a choice free nations have always had to make. We have learned together the high cost of weakness and the high stakes of its defense.” 

And that June he vowed at a Washington, D.C. press conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, “the United States will defend itself, always will defend itself, always, and we will always defend our allies.”

Meanwhile, shortly after his inauguration, Mr. Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a statement affirming that “The unshakable U.S.-Japan Alliance is the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and freedom in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. commitment to defend Japan through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, is unwavering.”

It’s true that the President has spoken repeatedly, both as a candidate for the White House and as a chief executive, of his desire to withdraw American troops from these countries at some unspecified point. (This archive contains an indispensable, useful comprehensive collection.) But it’s also true that Mr. Trump has endorsed the defining globalist precept that U.S. “security and prosperity [have] depended” on “pushing back” versus threats to the allies.

During his successful White House run, candidate Trump faulted Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – a Secretary of State under President Obama – for dooming any prospects for reforming American alliances by continually touting their paramount virtues. One of these critiques (cited in the aforementioned archive) is worth quoting at length:

Now, Hillary Clinton said: ‘I will never leave Japan. I will never leave Japan. Will never leave any of our–‘ Well now, once you say that, guess what happens? What happens? You can’t negotiate. In a deal, you always have to be prepared to walk. Hillary Clinton has said, ‘We will never, ever walk.’ That’s a wonderful phrase, but unfortunately, if I were on Saudi Arabia’s side, Germany, Japan, South Korea and others, I would say, ‘Oh, they’re never leaving, so what do we have to pay them for?’ You always have to be prepared to walk. It doesn’t mean I want to walk. And I would prefer not to walk. You have to be prepared and our country cannot afford to do what we’re doing.”

In other words, Mr. Trump was making one of his characteristic charges that his opponent – and the establishment foreign policy “Blob” to which she’s belonged — had turned the United States into an “Uncle Sucker” who’d forgotten that Washington’s top priority is looking after the American people, not foreign populations. If he doesn’t get his alliance diplomacy act together soon, this self-described master deal-maker will start deserving the same label.

Making News: New Op-Ed on Why Trump is Still Winning on Trade

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I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new freelance article of mine.  This morning, The Washington Times posted my op-ed explaining why the huge increase in the monthly and annual U.S. trade deficits reported on Wednesday masked some surprising trends.  Specifically, the data made clear that President Trump’s trade policies continue progressing toward their two of their biggest goals.  Click here to read.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Why the Lousy February Jobs Numbers Don’t Vindicate Tariff Alarmism

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The stunningly poor February overall and manufacturing jobs figures released by the Labor Department today surely caused rejoicing in the ranks of America’s trade alarmists. Here, finally, was evidence that President Trump’s tariff-centric policies are backfiring on the U.S. economy and especially its manufacturing sector.

Actually, however, the new employment data show that the alarmists will need to wait at least another month for the statistics even remotely to justify their claims and warnings. For however disappointing the 20,000 net monthly increase in total American job creation and the 4,000 improvement in manufacturing payrolls, the internals provide no reason to assign significant – or any – blame to trade.

The first clue of course was the steep sequential drop in non-farm employment (the Labor Department’s U.S. jobs universe) generally speaking recorded in this first survey of February trends. After all, if the trade wars were mainly behind February’s results, why was the monthly drop-off in job creation nearly three times steeper in the overall economy (most of which has little global trade exposure) than in manufacturing (which has lots of it)?

At least as important, although the President began imposing tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum eleven months ago, manufacturing sectors heavily reliant on these metals keep outperforming the rest of manufacturing in employment terms. And similar trends are becoming apparent for the enormous number of industries that use various inputs from China that have been tariff-ed starting in July.

Below are the net hiring increases since April (the first full month of the new metals trade regime) for the American private sector as a whole, for all of manufacturing, and for the main heavy metal-using industries.

                                                   Old thru Jan.         New thru Jan.         Thru Feb.

entire private sector:                +1.36 percent         +1.62 percent      +1.64 percent

overall manufacturing:            +1.39 percent         +1.55 percent      +1.58 percent

durable goods:                         +1.72 percent         +1.97 percent      +2.04 percent

fabricated metals products:     +1.57 percent         +1.80 percent      +1.60 percent

non-electrical machinery:       +2.57 percent         +2.54 percent      +2.82 percent

automotive vehicles & parts:  +1.15 percent         +0.97 percent      +1.11 percent

household appliances:             not available           -2.52 percent        not available

aerospace products & parts:    not available          +5.93 percent        not available

The only metals-using sector that seems to have encountered employment trouble in February was the fabricated metals industry. And even in this segment of manufacturing, hiring since April has been slightly stronger than in manufacturing overall.

Automotive job creation has been weak as well, but actually enjoyed a relatively good February, relatively speaking. And although the appliance employment picture remains very weak, it needs to be remembered that it’s been laboring under an additional set of product-specific tariffs since late January.

Yet the entire durable goods sector continued to punch above its job creation weight in February, including the crucial machinery and (at least through January), aerospace industries. Why haven’t higher metals prices darkened their employment picture.

As for the impact of the China tariffs, that’s harder to judge for four reasons. First, an enormous number of manufacturing industries use Chinese inputs – and to greatly varying extents. Second, these levies only began in July, and then on a relatively small scale. Third, the list of products tariff-ed beginning in July matches up imperfectly at best with the sectoral classification scheme used by the Labor Department to track manufacturing employment. And fourth, most of the affected products are found in relatively narrow categories of manufactures, where the jobs data is one month behind.

So the following table shows the post-July employment performance of some major manufacturing sectors that use the Chinese parts, components, and materials tariff-ed that month. But it should be viewed with caution. Nonetheless, they show a heavy burden of proof on the tariff alarmists to identify any damage resulting from the China levies – especially since most of the July-January gains have been so strong.

                                                Old July-Jan.       New July-Jan.          July-Feb.

overall manufacturing           +0.91 percent      +0.98 percent        +1.00 percent

aircraft engines/engine parts: not available       +0.70 percent         not available

industrial heating equipment: not available      +3.02 percent         not available

oil/gas drilling parts:              not available      +3.93 percent         not available

farm machinery/equipment:   not available     +2.67 percent         not available

ball bearings:                         not available     +2.32 percent          not available

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is a popular expression explaining why individual accurate statements or correct predictions shouldn’t automatically signal an information source’s broader credibility. The February jobs figures indicate once again that the trade alarmists haven’t even met this rock-bottom bar.

(What’s Left of) Our Economy: Pssst! Some Good News on Productivity!

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Here’s a peculiar new twist in ongoing media coverage and more general establishment commentary on the U.S. economy: The conventional wisdom among both these intertwined crowds holds that the American trade deficit doesn’t matter much economically. Yet the apparently poor trade numbers reported yesterday by the Census Bureau was the talk of these towns.

The conventional wisdom held by the establishmentarians also holds that productivity is incredibly important. Indeed, it’s widely described as a key to future prosperity. But the improving productivity figures released today by the Labor Department were virtually ignored.

Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals why. President Trump has made a very big deal out of the need to reduce the trade deficit, and the newest data indicate he’s failing. (Special note: You’ll be hearing more from me on this score very soon.) But Mr. Trump has said nothing about productivity. (That’s actually typical for politicians.) So even had the statistics been poor, there would have been no opportunity for a mass “Gotcha!” festival.

These latest numbers concern labor productivity which, as known by RealityChek regulars, is the narrowest of two productivity measures tracked by the Labor Department. But they’re also published in a much more timely fashion than the total factor (also called multi-factor) productivity statistics, which as their name implies, require collecting more information in order to calculate.

The improvement is most apparent upon examining recent annual changes in labor productivity (which tells us how many units of output a single person working for a single hour can turn out). The new figures bring the story up to the end of 2018, and show a year-to-year gain in the fourth quarter of 1.90 percent for non-farm businesses – the Labor Department’s American economic universe when it comes to productivity.

That increase may not sound like much, but it’s the biggest such advance since the first quarter of 2015 (1.60 percent), and the second biggest since the third quarter of 2010 (2.70 percent). And the trend has been upward since the second half of 2015.

Manufacturing’s labor productivity performance wasn’t quite so good. For the fourth quarter of 2018, it rose at a 1.00 percent annual rate. That increase represented a slowdown from the third quarter’s 1.50 percent. But even though industry’s productivity has been climbing only sluggishly in general since the beginning of 2016, that’s represented a major and positive change from the end of 2014 through 2015 – when manufacturing labor productivity fell on-year for five straight quarters.

Nonetheless, no one should assume that all’s well with labor productivity in America, either for non-farm businesses or for manufacturers. In fact, as the table below makes clear, the nation remains smack in the middle of a deep long-term labor productivity slump in relative terms. Specifically, over the last three economic expansions (the best way to measure trends over time, since it compares like stages of the business cycle), labor productivity gains for the non-farm business and manufacturing sectors have drifted steadily downward.

Especially discouraging: Although the current economic recovery is now just about as long as its 1990s predecessor, the cumulative non-farm business productivity rise for this expansion is less than half as strong. As for manufacturing, its labor productivity performance has been so weak (increasing by just over a fifth the rate of the 1990s expansion), that it’s lost its long-time productivity improvement lead.

When productivity improves strongly, all sorts of good things follow. In particular, workers’ wages can rise robustly without triggering inflation – which in an economy dominated by consumption, can help set the stage for equally vigorous, non-inflationary growth, and therefore more wealth for everyone to share. Does that sound boring to you? I’m shaking my head “No,” as well, which is why whether they keep getting overlooked or not, I’ll keep following the productivity news closely.

                                                                   Non-farm business          Manufacturing

1990s expansion (2Q 1991-1Q 2001)           +23.74 percent            +45.86 percent

bubble expansion (4Q 2001-4Q 2007)          +16.59 percent            +30.23 percent

current expansion: (2Q 2009 to present):      +11.28 percent              +9.70 percent

Making News: Video of Today’s CNBC Segment on Today’s U.S. Trade Figures Now On-Line!

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This morning I got a short notice invitation to appear on CNBC to dissect the new U.S. trade figures and explain the message they’re sending us about President Trump’s tariff-heavy trade policies.  There were so many numbers to crunch beforehand that I didn’t have a chance to send out a heads-up.  But since the network does a great job of archiving segments (and making them available for free), you can see the conversation (also featuring James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute) at this link.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Making News: Podcast of Last Night’s National Radio Interview on China Trade Deal Enforcement

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I’m pleased to present the podcast of a new national radio interview I did last night updating the U.S.-China trade conflict.  The segment, which aired on Breitbart News Tonight, focused on an issue likely to make or break prospects for a trade deal acceptable to Americans — monitoring and enforcing Chinese compliance with the terms of whatever agreement is reached.

To access it, click on this link and scroll down until you see the March 1 segment with my name on it.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances (when I get enough notice!) and other developments.

Making News: Podcast of Last Night’s National Radio Interview on the China Trade Talks

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I’m pleased to present the podcast of last night’s interview on John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show.  So if you missed the live broadcast, you can click onto this link and listen to a timely update of the ongoing U.S.-China trade talks.  The special focus:  President Trump’s decision to postpone raising tariffs on Chinese imports and chief negotiator Robert Lighthizer’s testimony yesterday claiming a breakthrough on crucial enforcement issues.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Making News: Back on National Radio Tonight to Update the China Trade Talks

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I’m pleased to announce that I’m scheduled to return to John Batchelor’s nationally syndicated radio show tonight to help provide an update on the China trade talks.  The segment is slated to begin at 10:15 PM EST, and joining John and me will be co-host Gordon G. Chang, and former Michigan Republican Congressman Thaddeus McCotter.

With all the past week’s major developments — ranging from President Trump’s decision to postpone tariff increases stemming from his optimism on the negotiations’ progress, to trade envoy Robert Lighthizer’s Congressional testimony today on the talks’ status — it’s a show you won’t want to miss.

You can listen live on-line at this link, and as always, if you can’t tune in, I’ll post a link to the podcast as soon as one’s available.

And keep checking in with RealityChek for news of upcoming media appearances and other developments.

Glad I Didn’t Say That! A Mixed Media Message on U.S. Farm Labor Shortages

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“With fewer undocumented workers to hire, U.S. farmers are fueling a surge in the number of legal guest workers”

The Washington Post, February 21, 2019

 

“One February afternoon, they work about an acre apart on a farm the size of 454 football fields: dozens of pickers collecting produce the way people have for centuries — and a robot that engineers say could replace most of them as soon as next year.”

The Washington Post, February 17, 2019

 

(Sources: “With fewer undocumented workers to hire, U.S. farmers are fueling a surve in the number of legal guest workers,” by Kevin Sieff and Annie Gowen, The Washington Post, February 21, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/with-fewer-undocumented-workers-to-hire-us-farmers-are-fueling-a-surge-in-the-number-of-legal-guest-workers/2019/02/21/2b066876-1e5f-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html?utm_term=.225cc2cc55fe; and “Farmworker vs Robot,” by Danielle Paquette, The Washington Post, February 17, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2019/02/17/feature/inside-the-race-to-replace-farmworkers-with-robots/?utm_term=.24166019b5dc)