State of U.S. Manufacturing: Positive for Steel

Written by Peter Wright

Economic indicators of manufacturing activity in the United States remain strong and portend well for the first half of 2018.  

This report summarizes seven data sources that describe the state of manufacturing in the U.S. We have reported on most of these separately in our Steel Market Update publications, and therefore will be brief in this summary. We don’t expect these data sources to all point in the same direction. Our intent in summarizing them in one document is to provide a consensus of the state of this critical steel consumption sector. Based on American Iron and Steel Institute estimates of steel mill shipments by market classification, almost 50 percent of the steel consumed in the U.S. is manufacturing-oriented. This breaks down to about 27 percent in ground transportation including infrastructure, 9 percent in machinery and equipment, 5 percent in appliances, 4 percent in defense and about 4 percent in containers.

The Industrial Production Index: Figure 1 shows the IP index since January 2007 with the year-over-year growth. The three-month moving average (3MMA) had negative growth every month from October 2015 through December 2016 as shown by the brown bars in Figure 1. January 2017 was the first month of positive growth in the 3MMA since August 2015. Growth continued to be both positive and improving through February 2018. Manufacturing capacity utilization improved from 75.21 percent in January 2017 to 76.41 percent in February 2018 on a 3MMA basis.

New Orders for Durable Goods: The U.S. Census Bureau announced last week that new orders for manufactured durable goods in February increased by 0.7 percent on a 3MMA basis month over month and were up by 7.5 percent year over year. Figure 2 shows the 3MMA of monthly orders for durable goods since January 2010 and that the percent change year over year was the highest since September 2014.

The Durable Goods Portion of GDP: The second estimate of Q4 2017 GDP came in at 2.51 percent annualized growth, which was down from 3.16 percent in Q3. A subcomponent of the quarterly data is durable goods, which is part of the personal consumption calculation. It therefore contains no military hardware or civil aircraft data. This is shown in Figure 3 and, presumably because of the exclusions just mentioned, looks nothing like Figure 2. Except for one quarter, Q1 2017, the durable goods portion of GDP has had positive growth every quarter since Q2 2011. 

Light Vehicle Production in NAFTA: Our past reports have included auto assembly data for the U.S., Canada and Mexico but that source has dried up, so until we find a replacement we are reporting on U.S. auto sales this month. Automobile sales have trended down somewhat in the last two years, and year over year in February were down by 2.8 percent. Sales remain strong, though, on a historical basis. The data behind Figure 4 includes imports, which had a market share of 22 percent in February, up from a recent low of 20.5 percent in March last year. The preference for light trucks, which includes SUVs and crossovers, is still increasing.   

Manufacturing Employment: Manufacturing employment plummeted during the recession and gradually improved from the spring of 2010 through 2014. Growth was flat in 2015 and declined slightly in 2016 when 23,000 jobs were lost during the year. There was a turnaround in 2017, and in the seven months August 2017 through February 2018, 190,000 jobs were created in manufacturing (Figure 5). The motor vehicles and parts subcomponent of manufacturing employment had a net gain of 32,000 in the same time frame. 

Manufacturing Productivity: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in Q4 2017 manufacturing productivity improved by 1.1 percent year over year (Figure 6). Productivity growth was erratic in 2017, but there has been a gradual improvement for three years.

The ISM Manufacturing Index: The Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing Index is a diffusion index. ISM states: “Diffusion indexes have the properties of leading indicators and are convenient summary measures showing the prevailing direction of change and the scope of change. An index value above 50 percent indicates that the manufacturing economy is generally expanding; below 50 percent indicates the opposite.” Figure 7 shows the 3MMA of the ISM index from January 1997 through February 2018 with an improving trend since January 2016. In February, the 3MMA of the index at 59.73 was the highest since April 2011.

The MAPI Foundation: On March 5, the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation commented: “Buoyed by a widening global economic rebound, a falling dollar and the passage of tax reform, the MAPI Foundation’s current outlook for U.S. manufacturing growth points to the best output performance in more than a decade. Stronger capital spending and export activity have translated into a manufacturing growth forecast of 2.8% for the 2018-2021 period, nearly double the 1.5% pace projected in our most recent report.”

SMU Comment: Another excellent month for manufacturing indicators. The ISM index, to which we give the most credence, is at its strongest level since April 2011 and signaling expansion. Auto sales in the U.S. are slowing but still historically strong. The industrial production index and new orders for durable goods have positive growth. The net of these seven indicators is very positive and point to a strong first half for 2018.

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