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US Expansion Manufacturing Continues

January 4, 2019

December data indicated a slower, albeit still solid, improvement in the health of the U.S. manufacturing sector. The headline PMI dipped to a 15-month low amid a weaker rise in new business and the joint-softest expansion in output since September 2017. At the same time, the pace of job creation eased to an 18-month low, despite a further rise in backlogs. Notably, business confidence among manufacturers fell again in December, with the degree of optimism dipping to the lowest since October 2016. Meanwhile, inflationary pressures eased at the end of 2018.

The seasonally adjusted IHS Markit final U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index™ (PMI™) posted 53.8 in December, down from 55.3 in November. The latest headline figure suggested a weaker, but still strong, improvement in operating conditions across the goods producing sector. Although ending the year with a softer overall expansion, the final quarterly average of 2018 was strong and quicker than that seen in 2017.

Production growth remained solid in December, and at a rate that matched that seen in November. The rise in output was attributed to greater new order volumes. That said, the upturn was nonetheless the joint-weakest in 15 months.

Following a slight pick up in November, new order growth eased in December. Though strong, the pace of expansion was the weakest since September 2017. Although some firms stated that the upturn was driven by new order inflows from newly acquired clients, others cited concerns surrounding a drop in client demand compared to earlier in the year.

Conversely, new export business grew at an accelerated pace in December. New orders from abroad increased for the fifth successive month and at the fastest rate since January amid stronger foreign client demand.

That said, a weaker overall rise in new orders led to a drop in business confidence among manufacturing firms in December. The degree of optimism was strong, but well below the long-run series average. Positive sentiment was dampened by concerns surrounding the longevity of new business growth. Moreover, future output expectations were at their lowest since October 2016.

Despite a moderate rise in backlogs in December, the rate of job creation softened to an 18-month low. Although firms noted an increase in workforce numbers following greater production requirements, others suggested that low rates of employee retention had weighed on growth.

Meanwhile, rates of both input price and output charge inflation eased in December. Greater cost burdens were reportedly due to raw material stockpiling among manufacturers, shortages of electronics components and the ongoing impact of tariffs. That said, the rate of inflation dipped to an 11-month low. Factory gate prices meanwhile rose at the weakest rate in 2018.

Commenting on the PMI data, Chris Williamson, Chief Business Economist at IHS Markit, said:

"Manufacturers reported a weakened pace of expansion at the end of 2018, and grew less upbeat about prospects for 2019. Output and orders books grew at the slowest rates for over a year and optimism about the outlook slumped to its gloomiest for over two years. The month rounds of a fourth quarter in which manufacturing production is indicated to have risen at only a modest annualised rate of about 1%.

“Some of the weakness is due to capacity constraints, with producers again reporting widespread difficulties in finding suitable staff and sourcing sufficient quantities of inputs. However, the survey also revealed signs of slower demand growth from customers, as well as rising concerns over the impact of tariffs. Just over two thirds of manufacturers reporting higher costs attributed the rise in prices to tariffs.

“Growth was led by strengthening demand for consumer goods, and robust growth was also reported for investment goods such as plant and machinery. But producers of intermediate goods – who supply inputs to other manufactures – reported the weakest rise in new orders for over two years, hinting at increased destocking by their customers.

“A shift to inventory reduction was highlighted by purchasing activity in the manufacturing sector rising at the weakest rate for one and a half years in December, providing further evidence that companies have become increasingly cautious about spending amid rising uncertainty about the outlook.”

OUTPUT

Production across the U.S. manufacturing sector increased solidly in December, and at a rate that matched that seen in November. Panellists widely linked the latest expansion to greater new order volumes. That said, the upturn was the joint-weakest since September 2017.

NEW ORDERS

New orders received by goods producers rose further in December, although the rate of expansion softened for the first time in four months. Notably, the rate of growth was the slowest since September 2017 and dipped below the series trend. Where an increase was reported, panellists attributed this to greater new order inflows from new client wins.

NEW EXPORT ORDERS

In contrast to the trend for new orders, new business from abroad increased at a faster pace in December. This also extended the current sequence of expansion to five months. Anecdotal evidence attributed the rise to stronger foreign client demand. Although only moderate, the upturn was the fastest since January.

BACKLOGS OF WORK

The level of work-in-hand at U.S. manufacturers continued to increase in December, further extending the current sequence of growth that began in August 2017. A number of monitored firms suggested that greater new order inflows and a further deterioration in vendor performance contributed to the latest rise in backlogs.

STOCKS OF FINISHED GOODS

The seasonally adjusted Stocks of Finished Goods Index dipped below the 50.0 no change mark for the third time in the last four months in December. The marginal decline in post-production inventories was linked by panellists to delays in the receipt of inputs and the fast shipment of finished goods.

EMPLOYMENT

Workforce numbers continued to grow across the U.S. manufacturing sector in December. Where an increase in staffing levels was registered, some firms attributed this to efforts to clear backlogs following a sustained rise in new business. That said, others noted that the retention of employees was low, which meant the overall rate of job creation eased to the weakest in eighteen months.

OUTPUT PRICES

Average output charges set by goods producers rose at a solid rate in December. The increase in selling prices was generally attributed to the pass-through of higher costs to clients. That said, the rate of inflation softened for the second successive month and was the slowest in 2018.

INPUT PRICES

Input price inflation softened in December, but remained sharp overall. Where a rise in purchasing costs was reported, panellists linked this to increased demand for inputs following expectations of further price increases, the ongoing impact of tariffs and shortages of electronics components. Overall, the rate of input price inflation eased to an eleven-month low, but remained above the survey average.

SUPPLIERS’ DELIVERY TIMES

Suppliers' delivery times continued to lengthen in December. Longer lead times were widely attributed to supplier capacity constraints and greater demand for inputs which partly stemmed from stockpiling activity among some firms in expectation of further tariffs and input price rises. That said, the extent to which vendor performance deteriorated was the least marked since January.

QUANTITY OF PURCHASES

Purchasing activity among goods producers rose again in December, extending the current trend of expansion that began in May 2016. Increases in input buying were attributed by panellists to greater new order volumes and efforts to stockpile inputs. In line with the trend for new business, however, the rate of growth softened. Furthermore, the upturn was the weakest in a year-and-a-half.

STOCKS OF PURCHASES

Stocks of purchases held by U.S. manufacturers increased for the nineteenth successive month in December. The marginal rise in pre-production inventories was attributed to greater client demand and increased efforts to stockpile following further delays in supplier deliveries.

FUTURE OUTPUT

Output expectations for the year ahead deteriorated in December, with the level of sentiment among the weakest seen in the series history. While optimism stemmed from a sustained rise in new business, others expressed concerns surrounding the longevity of increased client demand. Moreover, the level of business confidence was the lowest since October 2016.

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