Count me as one awfully surprised blogger when I saw this morning’s Federal Reserve U.S. manufacturing production figures (for February), which reported a 3.12 percent sequential drop in industry’s inflation-adjusted output. That was by far the worst such monthly performance since pandemicky April’s 15.83 percent crashdive, and even though the Fed largely blamed harsh winter weather in much of the country, it still contended that manufacturing would have shrunk by about half a percent even in balmier conditions.
A big reason for my surprise was the apparent contrast between these results and the findings of the monthly manufacturing surveys conducted by various of the Fed’s regional branches. They’re soft data, presenting manufacturers’ perceptions rather than actual changes in output (or jobs, or capital spending, or any other indicator), and I’ve written before that soft data are anything but perfect. But not only were the production reads in these surveys strong. They were strong even in Texas, where the storms were so severe. (And the Dallas Fed’s survey was conducted as they were raging.) Moreover, the same held for the February results from the neighboring Kansas City Fed bank.
Further, other hard data – specifically, on jobs – pointed to a good February for manufacturing, too, as industry expanded its payrolls by 21,000.
But the new Fed production numbers shouldn’t be dismissed entirely, so let’s look at the…lowlights, starting with the revisions, which were moderately negative. January’s previously reported 1.04 percent monthly advance is now pegged at 1.29 percent. December’s already once-downgraded inflation-adjusted output growth was lowered again, from 0.94 percent to 0.84 percent. November’s result, which had been upgraded twice (most recently to 1.10 percent) is now judged to have been 1.05 percent. October’s string of upward revisions was stopped, too, as the new report reveals a downgrade from 1.51 percent to 1.39 percent.
Overall, these readings mean that domestic manufacturing’s after-inflation production has grown by 20.26 percent since its April nadir, and stands 3.83 percent below its last pre-pandemic reading, from February.
As not the case with recent Fed industrial production reports, the output changes were highly concentrated in a few industries. Bearing out the central bank’s observation that “some petroleum refineries, petrochemical facilities, and plastic resin plants suffered damage from the deep freeze and were offline for the rest of the month,” most of these sectors saw outsized price-adjusted month-to-month drops in February. For petroleum and coal products, the fall-off was 4.43 percent, and for the huge chemicals sector, 7.11 percent Interestingly, the chemicals decline was even bigger than that it suffered last April, at the depths of the pandemic and related economic activity curbs (6.08 percent).
And as for those resin plants? Their February real output plummeted by fully 28.12 percent – much more than at any time last spring, during the pandemic’s height, and the worst such performance since the 30.64 percent cratering during Great Recessionary September, 2008. In fact, constant dollar output in the industry sank to its lowest level since equally Great Recessionary March, 2009.
Another February real production decrease that looks temporary (but perhaps longer-lasting): the 8.26 percent plunge in constant dollar automotive production. The main culprit is no doubt a global shortage of semiconductors that could well weigh on the entire domestic manufacturing sector going forward.
As known by RealityChek regulars, the machinery sector is a major barometer of manufacturing’s overall health, because its products are used throughout industry. So given February’s poor results for the entire sector, it’s no surprise that real machinery output was off by 2.33 percent on month. But January’s results were upgraded tremendously – from 0.52 percent after-inflation growth to 2.59 percent. So price-adjusted machinery output is still within 1.17 percent of its final pre-pandemic levels.
Because Boeing’s protracted safety-related problems continue to clear up, aircraft and parts production notched another month of growth in real terms in February – an increase of 1.04 percent. Revisions, however, were negative, especially December’s – its previously upgraded production increase (to a strong 3.03 percent) is now judged to be a 0.61 percent decline. Largely as a result, inflation-adjusted output is now just fractionally above its February pre-pandemic level.
The picture was brighter in pharmaceuticals and medicines. This industry, which includes vaccines, saw its after-inflation production climbed by anorther 1.29 percent in February. Moreover, January’s initially reported robust 2.42 percent increase was revised to an even better 2.57 percent. As a result, pharmaceutical and medicines real output is now 5.62 percent higher than just before the pandemic, and should generate even better results in the coming months, as vaccine production will be surging even more strongly.
Unfortunately, the also vital medical equipment and supplies sector – which includes virus-fighting items like face masks, face masks, protective gowns, and ventilators – is still behind the curve. Constant dollar production actually dipped by 0.56 percent on month in February, although in another major revision, January’s performance is now judged to be a 1.08 percent gain rather than a 0.54 percent loss. All the same, real production in this sector (which encompasses many other products as well) is still 1.37 percent less than just before the CCP Virus and the lockdowns arrived in force.
All told, I’m still full of confidence about domestic manufacturing production, due to the Boeing, vaccines, and now the Biden stimulus effects. And don’t forget the administration’s continued reluctance to lift its predecessor’s towering and sweeping tariffs on China, and on metals imports from many countries. Lastly: The weather’s bound to keep getting better!