The latest U.S. inflation-adjusted manufacturing output numbers (for September) are now out, and they leave more muddled than ever the matter of how much (if any) damage American industry has suffered from President Trump’s tariff-heavy trade policies.
And it’s not just because of ongoing uncertainties about the effects of President Trump’s current and threatened China tariffs, and all the fluctuations in coverage and rates. It’s not just because of the month-long General Motors strike – which could end soon if the union rank-and-file approve the settlement agreed on by their leaders, and which the Federal Reserve itself (which tracks manufacturing output) fingered as a big culprit behind September’s lousy read. It’s also because of the impact of Boeing aircraft’s continuing safety woes (a subject on which the Fed has been strangely silent).
As I’ve reported, the Boeing effect finally showed up in the latest U.S. trade data – which is especially important given the aerospace giant’s reliance on exports. But it hasn’t appeared anywhere else, including the new manufacturing production figures, even though orders for Boeing jets have been dramatically slashed, and even though the company is a huge consumer of materials, parts, and components from other manufacturing sectors.
With all those cautions out on the table, here’s what the new Fed statistics showed. After-inflation domestic manufacturing output slid by 0.48 percent sequentially in September, the worst such result since April’s 0.87 percent decrease, and more than enough to keep industry overall in recession. Since July, 2018, its real output is down a total of 0.38 percent.
GM’s labor troubles clearly dragged the total number down. Constant dollar vehicles and parts production in September sank by 4.22 percent on month, its worst such performance since January’s 7.18 percent nosedive (when the federal government was still shut down, surely depressing consumer confidence).
The Fed made clear that “Excluding motor vehicles and parts, [its] overall [industrial production] index and the manufacturing index each moved down 0.2 percent.” (More precisely, the real manufacturing decline would have been only 0.15 percent without automotive.) Oddly, though, the Fed didn’t mention that any development that depresses vehicle and parts production is bound to ripple through all the industries making up its extensive supply chain, too.
Yet despite the export troubles revealed in the trade figures, the Fed’s statistics show that aircraft and parts production enjoyed a terrific September. Indeed, the 1.82 percent sequential jump was the biggest since March, 2014’s 2.42 percent.
Nor do sectors comprising the aerospace supply chain (which broadly overlaps considerably with automotive’s) seem to be lagging significantly, except for primary metals. For example, below are the inflation-adjusted output figures for some big supplier sectors and control groups since April (the first full data month following actions the world over grounding or banning from various air spaces Boeing’s 737 Max jets):
overall manufacturing: +0.44 percent
durable goods: +0.75 percent
primary metals: -3.38 percent
fabricated metals products: -0.17 percent
machinery: +1.19 percent
As for the impact of the trade wars, as usual, the consequences of the President’s tariffs on aluminum and steel are easiest to gauge, since they’ve been on the longest, and the major metals-using industries (the presumed leading victims) are so easy to identify. The table below represents the changes in their real output since April, 2018 (the first full month in which the levies were in effect), with the data for manufacturing overall used as a control group, and durable goods included because it’s the super-category in which most of the main metals-using industries are located:
Old Apr thru Aug New Apr thru Aug April thru Sept
overall manufacturing: +0.54 percent +0.57 percent +0.09 percent
durables manufacturing: +1.98 percent +2.00 percent +1.25 percent
fabricated metals prods: +1.88 percent +2.07 percent +1.85 percent
machinery: +0.67 percent +1.39 percent 0 percent
automotive: +0.17 percent +0.30 percent -3.92 percent
major appliances: -2.04 percent -1.22 percent -2.19 percent
aircraft and parts: +4.39 percent +3.54 percent +5.43 percent
The results are mixed – and obviously the most recent automotive number has little to do with the metals duties. Otherwise, three of the remaining four metals users have gained momentum versus the rest of manufacturing (durables, appliances, and aircraft), although their output performances remain subdued in absolute terms, and machinery has lost momentum.
Unfortunately, this kind of analysis not only remains much more difficult for the impact of the China tariffs. But every twist and turn in the trade talks saga only increases the challenge. Primarily because of uncertainties stemming from differences between the manufactured goods classification systems used by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office (which publishes the lists of tariff-ed items) and the main system used by other U.S. government agencies (like the Fed), the sectors below are among the handful that are reasonably certain to have faced tariff pressure since the first duties were placed in imports from China in July, 2018. Each column shows the real output changes since their first full month in effect through July, August, and September of this year:
Aug thru July Aug thru Aug Aug thru Sept
overall manufacturing: -0.89 percent -0.33 percent -0.81 percent
ball bearings: -2.32 percent -2.26 percent -2.30 percent
industrial heating equip: -4.58 percent -1.72 percent -1.01 percent
farm machinery & equip: -6.91 percent +9.71 percent -0.69 percent
oil/gas drilling platform pts: -0.86 percent -1.38 percent -1.38 percent
As is clear, these results are even more mixed than for the metals-using industries – to which all of these products belong. And with the President’s trade policies all too likely to stay ragged as the 2020 elections come closer, “more confusion” looks like the safest prediction possible regarding American manufacturing production