September 17, 2019
By Alan Tonelson
Is U.S. domestic manufacturing emerging from its recent funk? This morning’s Federal Reserve industrial production figures (for August) certainly supply some compelling evidence. And some of the nation’s major metals-using industries – widely portrayed as major victims of Trump administration tariffs that have been in place since early 2018 on steel and aluminum – led the pack last month.
August’s 0.53 sequential real output increase wasn’t enough to pull domestic industry out of its current technical recession. But it did shorten the length of the downturn considerably. As of the previous industrial production report, manufacturing had been in recession since April, 2018 – with its inflation-adjusted output down 0.004 percent.
Today’s data revealed that constant-dollar production has now fallen 0.36 percent since the previous August. In addition, since its latest bottom (this April), after-inflation manufacturing output is up 0.89 percent. And sequentially, this production is up three of the last four months.
Moreover, the strong August performance of the metals-using sectors was noteworthy. These industries have faced wide-ranging tariffs on steel and aluminum since March, 2018, with April being the first full month in which the duties were in effect. (Major appliances have been an exception – they have also been coping with separate levies on large household laundry equipment since February, 2018.) As reported by RealityChek last month, some of these metals-users suffered a miserable July, indicating that the metals tariffs were finally taking a measurable toll, either because of the higher input costs they created, the greater uncertainty they generated, the impact of retaliatory foreign tariffs, or some combination of all three.
But as demonstrated by the following table, they regained much of their momentum relative to the rest of manufacturing last month. These figures represent the changes in their real output since April, 2018, with the data for manufacturing overall used as a control group.
April thru June April thru July April thru August
overall manufacturing: +0.42 percent -0.01 percent +0.54 percent
durables manufacturing: +1.57 percent +1.37 percent +1.98 percent
fabricated metals products: +1.89 percent +0.95 percent +1.88 percent
machinery: +0.78 percent -0.88 percent +0.67 percent
automotive: +0.69 percent +1.20 percent +0.17 percent
major appliances: -4.84 percent -4.39 percent -2.04 percent
aircraft and parts: +2.39 percent +3.59 percent +4.39 percent
With the exception of the automotive sector (where a big inventory overhang could finally be slowing output significantly) and aircraft and parts (which keeps chugging along, so far despite Boeing’s safety troubles) these major metals-using sectors enjoyed Augusts that were much stronger in terms of growth than their Julys. And in August, durable goods overall (the manufacturing super-sector in which the main metals-using industries are located), major appliances, and aircraft and parts have recaptured the relative growth lead they’d lost the previous month.
The effects of President Trump’s China tariffs have been much more difficult to ascertain for many reasons: Even the earliest have been in effect only since last summer. Their nature has been so on-again-off-again nature. The original tariff levels on some have been increased. Their use is so widely (but often so thinly and non-uniformly) spread throughout American industry. And the official lists of tariff-ed products don’t match up precisely with the classification system used by the Fed (and the rest of the U.S. government) to track trends in manufacturing and the rest of the economy.
All the same, here are results for a handful of sectors reasonably certain to have faced tariff pressure since last August. Each column measures real output changes since that month.
Aug thru June Aug thru July Aug thru Aug
overall manufacturing: -0.48 percent -0.89 percent -0.36 percent
ball bearings: -2.48 percent -2.30 percent -2.23 percent
industrial heating equip: -4.96 percent -4.16 percent -2.52 percent
farm machinery & equip: -6.44 percent -6.91 percent +9.71 percent
oil/gas drilling platform pts: +2.18 percent -0.84 percent -1.04 percent
The sample size is obviously very small, and the results are almost as obviously a wash.
Looking ahead, domestic manufacturing – and especially the metals-using industries – faces at least two visible possible hurdles: Boeing’s ongoing woes, and a new strike at General Motors. And literally no one outside the Oval Office (assuming President Trump does) knows what the future will bring in terms of tariffs on imports from China, retaliation from Beijing. And don’t forget the Congressional vote on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada [trade] Agreement that may be coming.
But the August manufacturing production data were unquestionably solid. They continued a decent recent streak for the nation’s industries, and indicated considerable resilience – including possibly a growing ability to adapt to a radically different and volatile trade policy environment.
Alan Tonelson, a columnist for IndustryToday, is founder of the RealityChek blog (alantonelson.wordpress.com), which covers manufacturing, trade, the economy, and national security. He has written for many leading publications on these subjects and is the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2000).