If you read last month’s Federal Reserve report on after-inflation U.S. manufacturing output (for September), then there wasn’t much reason to read yesterday morning’s report on after-inflation manufacturing production (for October). For it described the same puzzling picture: American industrial performance clearly dragged down by the recently ended strike at General Motors (GM), but apparently completely unaffected by Boeing safety woes that have sharply reduced the aviation giant’s enormous exports.
The top-line figures released by the Fed were definitely gloomy. Last month, real U.S. Manufacturing output dropped by 0.62 percent sequentially – the worst such result since April’s 0.87 percent fall-off. Inflation-adjusted motor vehicle and parts output, however, plunged by 7.65 percent – its worst such performance since the 7.97 percent nosedive of April, 2011. Moreover, September’s previously reported 4.22 percent monthly automotive price-adjusted automotive decrease was revised all the way down to a 5.49 percent slump.
As the Fed observed, without the huge October monthly plunge in inflation-adjusted automotive output, the overall manufacturing production decline would have been just 0.14 percent – which obviously doesn’t show any strength, either.
But this is where the Boeing puzzle comes in. There’s still no sign of it in these Fed data. Most curiously, constant dollar production for aircraft and parts production rose a solid 0.57 percent on month in October. It’s down since March, when governments the world over began grounding its popular but now troubled 737 Max jet or banning it from their national air spaces.
But although Boeing’s exports have deteriorated sharply, too, the real output shrinkage has only been 1.48 percent since March, and since April (the first full data month since those March woes), after-inflation production of aircraft and parts has actually risen 1.15 percent. That’s considerably better than the output performance of domestic manufacturing as a whole during this period. And it’s much better than the output of key supplier sectors, although surely they’d been affected by the GM strike as well:
overall manufacturing: -0.19 percent
durable goods: -0.81 percent
primary metals: -1.62 percent
fabricated metals products: -0.60 percent
machinery: +0.37 percent
It’s true that export sales and production don’t move in lock step for aircraft, or for any other industry. But with foreign markets representing well over half of Boeing’s revenue last year, the former sinking while the latter keep growing isn’t easy to explain.
Something else that needs to be considered: Whatever the Fed data actually show, they’re not able to show much about how aircraft parts and production would have fared without the Boeing troubles. And they’re even less capable of showing such counterfactuals regarding how supplier sectors might have fared.
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 Sept New Apr thru Sept Apr thru Oct
overall manufacturing: +0.09 percent +0.08 percent -0.54 percent
durables manufacturing: +1.25 percent +0.87 percent -0.32 percent
fabricated metals prods: +1.85 percent +1.63 percent +1.42 percent
machinery: 0 percent -0.96 percent -0.81 percent
automotive: -3.92 percent -5.53 percent -12.24 percent
major appliances: -2.19 percent -2.03 percent -9.14 percent
aircraft and parts: +5.43 percent +3.00 percent +3.59 percent
In absolute terms, the results are still all over the place, and a GM strike effect is clearly evident for supplier industries like fabricated metal products and machinery. The interruption of GM production also seems to have aggravated – but not caused – the loss of relative momentum exhibited by the metals-users – meaning, that their production slowdown has gotten faster relative to that of overall manufacturing, even leaving out the cratering of automotive output. Interestingly, that momentum loss is now affecting aircraft and parts, too – whose September production figures were also revised down significantly.
Also noteworthy – the steep monthly production dive in major appliances in October. Yes, they’ve experienced their own product-specific tariffs (on large household laundry equipment) as well as the metals tariffs. Production of these products is pretty volatile, too. But the 7.26 percent real monthly output drop was the biggest since it plummeted 8.29 percent between September and October, 2013. Even stranger – the housing sector, which drives much appliance buying and therefore indirectly production – registered a major uptick in growth in the third quarter after six quarters of substantial decline.
As for the impact of the China tariffs on manufacturing output, since that’s much more difficult to gauge than the effects of the metals tariffs (e.g., because Chinese products have been used so widely, and to such varying extents, as inputs for so many manufacturing industries) it seems to make less sense than ever to examine them, given the possibility of the Boeing effect lasting months more.
And somewhat depressingly, I find myself wondering if that’s going to be true for following any manufacturing-and-trade-relevant data for at least a month or two more. (Though I’m sure I’ll keep soldering on!)