Ukraine war-related shocks will need to be epic in order to knock domestic industry off its steady course.
By Alan Tonelson
Thursday’s Federal Reserve report on U.S. domestic manufacturing production (for February) was especially interesting for three reasons. First, it showed that the output of America-based factories rose month-on-month in inflation-adjusted terms by 1.20 percent. That was the best such performance since October’s 1.71 percent, and although it covers the period just before whatever Ukraine war-related disruption is going to hit the U.S. economy, it also contrasts with most (sluggish) estimates of overall American growth for the first quarter of this year. Manufacturing production revisions, moreover, were only slightly negative.
Second, since February, 2020 was the final data month before the CCP Virus and related lockdowns and voluntary behavioral changes started roiling and distorting the economy, it’s noteworthy that exactly two data years later, manufacturing output has grown by a real 3.37 percent. (As of last month’s Fed release, this figure was 2.49 percent.)
Third, these results hardly mean that domestic industry is in top shape, at least not historically speaking. For in inflation-adjusted production terms, it’s still 3.88 percent smaller than at its all-time peak – reached in December, 2007, just before the economy plunged into the Great Recession prompted by the global financial crisis.
February’s biggest monthly manufacturing production winners were:
>non-metallic mineral products, whose 3.46 percent monthly real expansion was its best since the 4.34 percent achieved in June, 2020 – during the rapid economy-wide recovery from the first wave of the virus and resulting activity curbs and dropoffs. This latest sequential increase brought output in the sector to 4.36 above its February, 2020 levels;
>the broad aerospace and miscellaneous transportation equipment industry, which increased after-inflation output in February by 3.22 percent. That rise was its best since July, 2021’s 4.21 percent, and the sector is now fully 16.90 percent bigger production-wise than in February. 2020;
>the small apparel and leather goods industries, which improved its constant dollar output on month by 2.96 percent, for its best sequential gain since January, 2021’s 3.31 percent. This industry’s production – which shrank greatly for decades due to low-cost foreign competition – is now up by just 1.85 percent since February. 2020; and
>wood products, where price-adjusted output expanded sequentially by 2.58 percent – the most since March, 2021’s 4.05 percent. In real terms, wood products production is now 6.28 percent greater than in February, 2020.
RealityChek regulars know that the broad machinery sector is a key barometer of national economic health generally speaking, since its products are used by so many manufacturing and non-manufacturing industries. So it’s good news that its sequential inflation-adjusted output advanced by a solid 0.78 percent in February, and even better news that January’s results were revised up from 1.08 percent to 1.83 percent – its best such perfomance since July. The machinery industry’s real output is now a strong 7.62 percent greater than in Febuary, 2020.
Of all the biggest manufacturing sub-sectors tracked by the Fed, only two suffered after-inflation monthly downturns in February:
>The automotive industry continued suffering from the global semiconductor shortage, with its constant dollar output sinking by 3.55 percent sequentially in February – its worst monthly performance since September, 2021’s 6.32 percent plunge. Price-adjusted production of vehicles and parts is now fully 10.68 below Febuary, 2020’s levels; and
>miscellaneous non-durable goods. Its real month-on-month output dipped by 0.36 percent in February, but since February, 2020, it’s off by 16.00 percent.
Industries that consistently have made headlines during the pandemic generally enjoyed February’s at least as strong as manufacturing overall.
Likely stemming from the widening flow of long overdue news from industry giant Boeing (see, e.g., here), aircraft- and parts-makers grew their after-inflation output in Febuary by 2.52 percent over Jauuary’s figure – their strongest such showing since August’s 3.44 percent. That January figure was revised down from 1.37 percent sequential growth to a still impressive 1.21 percent, and December’s upgraded 0.38 percent monthly dip is now judged to be a 0.62 percent decline. But after-inflation output for these companies is now up 16.35 percent since February, 2020 – up from the 13.14 percent calculable from last month’s Fed report.
The combination of a solid February and negative revisions also marked the big pharmaceuticals and medicines sector. February’s 1.08 percent price-adjusted monthly output gain was the industry’s best since August’s 2.39 percent. But January’s initially reported 0.27 percent sequential uptick is now pegged as a 0.14 percent decrease, and December’s upwardly revised 0.81 percent rise is now judged to be a 0.10 percent drop. Even so, total real pharmaceutical and medicines production is 14.91 percent higher than in February, 2020 – up from the 13.42 percent calculable last month.
Much better February results were turned in by the medical equipment and supplies sector. Monthly production improved by 1.39 percent – the best such result since the 10.78 percent reported in July, 2020, early during the recovery from the first pandemic wave.
And revisions were positively eye-popping. January’s initially reported 2.50 percent monthly real output rise is now judged to have been 3.26 percent, and December’s first estimate of a 2.75 percent after-inflation fall-off is now estimated at just a 0.37 percent decline. All told, this grouping is now 8.44 percent bigger real growth-wise than in February, 2020 – as opposed to the 4.43 percent increase calculable last month.
Those semiconductors in such short supply were more abundant after February’s price-adjusted sequential production increase of 1.96 percent that was the best such performance since May’s 2.61 percent growth. January’s previously reported fractional decline is now pegged at a 0.37 percent decrease, but December’s 0.52 percent rise is now estimated at 0.88 percent. Consequently, these industries’ real output is now up 21.97 percent since February, 2020, as opposed to the 20.66 percent calculable last month.
The economic fall-out of the Ukraine war won’t start being reflected in the Fed manufacturing production reports until next month, but it looks virtually certain that it will either keep inflation (and therefore manufacturers’ input costs) high or push it higher. A bigger wild card could be the Fed itself. The central bank yesterday did keep its quasi-promise to start increasing the federal funds rate, but the hike was only 0.25 percent. And though more increases supposedly are scheduled, they’re far from certain if overall growth weakens markedly (as the Fed itself has forecast). New, more dangerous CCP Virus variants can always emerge. But national rates of vaccination and natural immunity seem high enough – and the public fed up enough with restrictive mandates – to keep supporting growth all else equal for the foreseeable future.
So unless the fortunes of manufacturing and the broader economy diverge sharply, it looks like domestic industry’s steady-for-the-most-part expansion since the depths of spring, 2020 will remain on course.
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).
Copyright, RealityChek, 2022