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US manufacturing near three-year low; casts a shadow over economy

2023-04-03T17:24:23Z

A worker stands near the chimney stacks of a neighbouring factory at IceStone, a manufacturer of recycled glass countertops and surfaces, in New York City, New York, U.S., June 3, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

U.S. manufacturing activity slumped in March to the lowest level in nearly three years as new orders plunged, and analysts said activity could decline further due to tighter credit conditions.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) survey on Monday showed all subcomponents of its manufacturing PMI below the 50 threshold for the first time since 2009. Some economists said this suggested a recession was around the corner, while others said much would depend on the services sector, whose PMI remains consistent with a growing economy.

The survey made no direct comment on recent financial markets turmoil. Makers of miscellaneous products said they were “closely monitoring the global banking situation” but there were no impacts “at this time.”

Federal Reserve rate hikes to fight inflation have raised borrowing costs and cooled demand for goods.

“Manufacturing is pulling back, but the service sector was still chugging along in February,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York. “As long as it remains well above 50 when reported on Wednesday, the broad economy should be just fine. Nevertheless, the health of manufacturing is related to the health of the overall economy.”

The ISM’s manufacturing PMI fell to 46.3 last month, the lowest level since May 2020, from 47.7 in February. Outside the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the weakest reading since mid-2009.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index would dip to 47.5. The PMI remained below the 50 threshold for the fifth straight month, a sign of contraction in manufacturing, yet hard data have suggested continued moderate growth in manufacturing, which accounts for 11.3% of the economy.

Manufacturing expanded at a 4.5% annualized rate in the fourth quarter, the government reported last week. Reports last month also showed orders for capital goods excluding aircraft eked out a small gain in February as did manufacturing output.

A separate survey from S&P Global on Monday showed an improvement in U.S. manufacturing in March from February.

“Economic statistics in the rest of the economy are not showing convincing signs of a recession,” said Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York.

According to the ISM, 70% of manufacturing gross domestic product was contracting in March, down from 82% in February. It said more industries contracted strongly last month.

“The proportion of manufacturing GDP with a composite PMI calculation at or below 45 percent, a good barometer of overall manufacturing sluggishness, was 25 percent in March, compared to 10 percent in February,” said Timothy Fiore, chair of the ISM Manufacturing Business Survey Committee.

Of the six largest manufacturing industries, only petroleum and coal products as well as machinery, registered growth in March. Other manufacturing industries reporting growth were printing and related support activities, miscellaneous manufacturing, fabricated metal products and primary metals.

Twelve industries reporting contraction included furniture and related products, nonmetallic mineral products, textile mills, transportation equipment and computer and electronic products as well as electrical equipment, appliances and components.

Comments from manufacturers were mostly downbeat. Transportation equipment producers said “sales are slowing at an increasing rate.” Electrical equipment, appliances and components manufacturers reported “new orders are starting to soften.” Makers of chemical products said “sales (were) a bit down, and budgets being cut with a greater emphasis on savings.”

But food, beverage and tobacco products manufacturers said “business is doing generally well, with input costs falling in some areas and rising in others.”

U.S. stocks were trading mixed. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

The ISM survey’s forward-looking new orders sub-index fell to 44.3 last month from 47.0 in February. Demand could come under pressure following the failure of two regional banks recently. Banks have tightened lending standards, which could make it harder for small businesses and households to access credit.

“Manufacturing activity was slowing before the recent stress, and we expect tighter conditions will contribute further to that slowdown in investment spending,” said Tim Quinlan, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Work backlogs shrank further last month, reflecting slower demand and improved supply chains. The ISM survey’s measure of supplier deliveries slipped to 44.8, the lowest level since March 2009, from 45.2 in February. A reading below 50 indicates faster deliveries to factories.

With supply improving, inflation at the factory gate is retreating. The ISM survey’s measure of prices paid by manufacturers dropped to 49.2 from 51.3 in February.

But oil prices jumped on Monday after Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ oil producers on Sunday announced further oil output cuts of around 1.16 million barrels per day. Prices for services also remain high.

Last month, the Fed raised its benchmark overnight interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point, but indicated it was on the verge of pausing further rate hikes due to market turmoil. The U.S. central bank has hiked its policy rate by 475 basis points since last March from the near-zero level to the current 4.75%-5.00% range.

With weak demand, the survey’s gauge of factory employment fell to 46.9 from 49.1 in February.

The ISM said companies were “attempting to maintain workforce levels to support projected second-half growth, but to a lesser degree compared to February.” Six industries reported a decline in employment.

Economists were confident nonfarm payrolls growth in March would exceed 200,000 in the government’s employment report on Friday.

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