U.S. Manufacturing Expands At Best Pace In 2½ Years

Fri, 11/01/2013 - 12:13pm
Christopher S. Rugaber, AP Economics Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. factory activity expanded in October at the fastest pace in 2½ years, suggesting that the 16-day partial shutdown of the government had little effect on manufacturers.

Instead, overseas demand and healthy U.S. auto sales appear to be supporting factory output. The housing recovery is also lifting the furniture and wood products industry despite a recent slowing in home sales.

"We've become accustomed to the way Washington operates in the past couple of years and assume that it will get resolved eventually, however painfully," said Bradley Holcomb, head of the survey committee of the Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing managers that on Friday reported a solid manufacturing figure for October.

The ISM's manufacturing index rose to 56.4 from 56.2 in September. A reading above 50 indicates growth.

Factories also expanded in Europe this month, though at a slightly slower pace, according to surveys in that region. Manufacturing indexes have all picked up in China, Japan, and South Korea.

The overseas strength is boosting demand for U.S. factories. A measure of export orders jumped to its highest level in nearly a year and a half in October, the ISM report said.

"The outlook for manufacturing looks far more constructive now than it did over the past several months, in light of the improving global backdrop," said Michael Dolega, an economist at TD Economics.

U.S. factory activity has now risen at an increasingly fast pace for five straight months, according to the ISM's index. In October, a measure of new orders rose slightly. And a gauge of production fell but remained at a high level. Factories added jobs, though more slowly than in September.

The shutdown did depress activity at some companies that make metal products and electrical equipment. And while the survey's findings suggest stronger output in coming months, the most recent measures of factory production remain tepid.

"The strength of this hasn't yet been reflected in actual manufacturing output," said Amna Asaf, an economist at Capital Economics.

On Monday, the Federal Reserve said factories barely increased their output in September. Automakers produced more. But that gain was offset by declines at companies that make computers, furniture and appliances.

Companies reduced demand for long-lasting factory goods in September, the government said last week. Orders for industrial machinery, electrical equipment and other core capital goods fell. And August's figures were revised down.

Economists pay particular attention to core capital goods, which exclude aircraft and defense-related goods, because they reflect business confidence.

Analysts were also encouraged by a survey of companies in the Chicago region, released Thursday. It found that the companies expanded at their fastest pace in more than two years in October. New orders jumped, and hiring also rose.

Still, economists don't expect manufacturing to boost economic growth in the coming months. Growth likely fell to a weak annual rate between 1.5 percent and 2 percent in the July-September quarter from a 2.5 percent pace in the April-June period.

Most economists expect similarly slow growth in the final three months of the year.

Cliff Waldman, senior economist for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI), offered the following analysis:

“The October report on U.S. manufacturing activity from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) contributes to growing evidence that modest improvements in global financial stability and growth are benefiting U.S. factories. The Purchasing Managers’ Index rose slightly from 56.2 in September to 56.4 in October, the highest level for this closely watched leading indicator of factory sector performance since April 2011.

“The demand components of the index were notably positive, with the new orders component remaining above the strong 60 percent level and the backlog of orders, a measure of the pressure on the factory production schedule, increasing nicely from contraction territory in September to growth territory in October,” Waldman continued. “Neither the data nor the respondent comments in October suggest any measurable impact from the government shutdown, although reports for coming months need to be interpreted carefully for any distorting influence of Washington difficulties.

“In recent months, the survey-based data from the ISM have painted a more optimistic picture of manufacturing performance than the industrial production reports from the Federal Reserve,” Waldman concluded. “Federal Reserve data show that the third quarter rebound from the modest contraction of manufacturing output in the spring was a disappointing 1.3 percent. Fed data also show that the slowdown in the U.S. housing recovery is impacting overall manufacturing performance. Taken together, the ISM data and the industrial production data suggest positive but muted near-term performance for U.S. factories, as the beneficial impacts of an improved global growth picture are at least somewhat neutralized by uncertainties about the sustainability of the rebound in key parts of the world and the potentially harmful effects of historic policy uncertainty in Washington.”


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