You might call today’s March U.S. manufacturing production figures from the Federal Reserve a good news/bad news/good news story. Moreover, the new data on inflation-adjusted factory output contained a surprise worth noting.
First the good news/bad news/good news. The Fed report showed that real domestic manufacturing output rose by 2.79 percent on month in March. That was the best such result since July’s 4.25 percent – much earlier during the recovery from the deep CCP Virus- and lockdowns-induced recession. Rebounds from major downturns tend to be strongest earliest, especially for highly cyclical sectors of the economy like manufacturing, and that surely went double for a slump largely caused by an outside shock like a pandemic and dramatic government responses, rather than one caused by a market-based economy’s ordinary fluctuations.
The bad news was that this robust growth followed a February sequential drop of 3.72 percent that was the worst monthly performance since pandemicky April’s 15.83 percent plunge. Moreover, this revised February figure was a significant downgrade from the initially reported 3.12 percent decline. The other revisions, going back to October, were too small to affect the picture over the last few months.
But then there’s that second piece of good news: As the Fed’s release explained this morning, the lousy February numbers “largely resulted from widespread outages related to severe winter weather in the south central region of the country.” So they stemmed from a (temporary) outside shock, too.
The surprise? Although the U.S. automotive industry continues reducing production due to a global shortage of semiconductors, output in price-adjusted terms grew by 2.79 percent sequentially in March. At the same time, the February fall-off was revised down from 8.26 percent to ten percent even. And the shortage is expected to undercut vehicle production until the fall, so that’s a drag likely to weigh on the overall manufacturing figures for months.
The total March manufacturing figure means that domestic industry’s after-inflation production has grown by 22.88 percent since its recent low-point last April, and has climbed back to within 1.73 percent of its last pre-pandemic reading in February, 2020.
Manufacturing’s monthly current dollar output gains were broadbased in March, including in the crucial machinery sector. In this industry, whose products are widely used not only throughout manufacturing, but in many other important segments of the economy like construction and agriculture, price-adjusted production improved by 2.87 percent. And now it actually stands 2.16 percent higher than during that last pre-CCP Virus month of February, 2020.
Although the semiconductor shortage is bound to crimp production in many industries on top of automotive, domestic manufacturing still seems to be benefiting from two headwinds other than the economy’s generally improving strength that seem to have some staying power, too. The first is aerospace giant Boeing’s continuing, but sometimes uneven, progress exiting its protracted recent safety and manufacturing problems. The pandemic’s blow to air travel worldwide clearly didn’t help, either.
But in March, real output in aircraft and parts jumped by 4.09 percent sequentially, and is now fully 5.07 percent above its February, 2020 pre-CCP Virus level.
The picture was more mixed in the pharmaceutical and medicines category – which includes vaccines. Inflation-adjusted output advanced by 2.90 percent on month in March, but the previously reported January and February numbers were both downgraded dramatically – from an upwardly revised 2.57 percent to 0.85 percent, and from a 1.29 percent rise to a 0.05 percent dip. These moves left the sector’s output 5.83 percent higher than in pre-pandemic February, 2020 with the prospect of more impovement to come as vaccine production continues to boom.
Growth is still lagging, however, in the vital medical equipment and supplies sector – which includes virus-fighting items like face masks, face masks, protective gowns, and ventilators. February’s constant-dollar production was revised up from a 0.56 percent monthly decline to a 0.44 percent drop – but it was still a drop. Growth returned in March – but only by 0.61 percent in real terms. So price-adjusted output in this category – which includes many other products – is still slightly (0.39 percent) below pre-pandemic February, 2020’s levels, despite all the national talk of the need to improve America’s health security.
I’m still bullish on manufacturing’s outlook, though. No one should forget headwinds facing industry aside from the semiconductor shortage – chiefly, the fading of vaccine production at some point, the distinct possibility of many more regulations and higher taxes from a Democratic-conrolled federal government, and the supply chain disruptions resulting largely from clogged West Coast ports (which on top of the Trump tariffs are slowing the import of many foreign inputs still needed by Made in the USA companies).
But arguably more than offsetting these dangers is the so far better-than-expected resumption of total U.S. growth, the virtual certainty of even yet another gigantic dose of stimulus an infrastructure spending, along with President Biden’s decision to retain every dollar’s worth of those sweeping, often towering Trump trade curbs.
Yet much more important than my views is the continuing optimism registered by domestic manufacturers in all of the soft data surveys that come out each month from the private sector and from various branches of the Federal Reserve system. If they’re full of confidence, who am I to rain on their parade?