Vehicles Drive Manufacturing and Retail Sales: April 16 – 20

Manufacturing activity grew again in March (albeit at a slower pace than in February) while retail sales had its best month since last November. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending April 20.

#1Manufacturing output grows at a slower pace during March. The Federal Reserve estimates manufacturing production increased 0.1 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month following a 1.5 percent gain in February, leaving the measure up 3.0 percent over the past year. Production of durable goods gained 0.4 percent—which included the impact of a 2.7 percent surge in motor vehicle output—and has increased 3.8 percent over the past year. Production of nondurables slowed 0.3 percent during the month but remained 2.7 percent ahead of its March 2017 mark. Overall industrial production rose 0.5 percent during March and has jumped 4.3 percent over the past 12 months. Mining output increased 1.0 percent (down from its 2.9 percent increase in February) while production at utilities surged 3.0 percent. The latter helped lead a 3/10ths of a percentage point in capacity utilization (factory utilization) to 78.0 percent, its highest point in three years.Industrial Production Capacity Utilization 042018

#2Retail sales gained in March. Retail and food services sales increased 0.6 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted $494.6 billion, per the Census Bureau. This was the largest single-month percentage increase in retail sales since last November and left the measure up 4.5 percent over the past year. Leading the surge in retail sales was the 2.0 percent jump in sales at auto dealers/parts stores. Net of auto dealer/parts stores, retail sales gained a more modest 0.2 percent in March and was 4.5 percent ahead of the year-ago sales pace. Sales grew at retailers focused on health/personal care (+1.4 percent), furniture (+0.7 percent), electronics (+0.5 percent), general merchandisers (+0.3 percent), and groceries (+0.2 percent). Sales also improved at nonstore retailers (+0.8 percent) and restaurants/bars (+0.4 percent). Slipping were sales at sporting goods/hobby stores (-1.8 percent), building materials retailers (-0.6 percent), gas stations (-0.3 percent), and department stores (-0.3 percent).

#3Forward-looking economic indicators foretell continued economic growth in the coming months. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) added 3/10ths of a point during March to 109.0 (2016=100), rising 6.2 percent over the past year. Six of the ten LEI components made positive contributions to the index, led by the interest rate spread, the new orders index from the Institute for Supply Management, and consumer expectations for future business conditions. The coincident index increased by 2/10ths of a point to 103.4, 2.2 percent ahead of its year-ago reading. All four components of the coincident index made positive contributions, including that for industrial production and personal income net of transfer payments. The lagging index inched up 1/10th of a point to 104.5 (+2.6 percent versus March 2017), with five of seven components making a positive contribution. The press release noted that leading indicators point “to continued solid growth in the U.S. economy for the rest of the year” but that weakness in labor market indicators “bear watching in the future.”

#4Housing starts advanced in March, thanks to gains in multifamily units. The Census Bureau estimates housing starts increased 1.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.319 million units. This was 10.9 percent ahead of the year-ago rate of starts. Starts of multifamily units (e.g., condos, apartments) jumped 16.1 percent during the month to an annualized 439,000 units while those of single-family homes dropped 3.7 percent to 867,000 units (SAAR). Looking towards future construction activity, the annualized count of issued building permits increased 2.5 percent during March to 1.354 million permits (+7.5 percent versus March 2017). Again, the 22.9 percent bump in permits for multifamily units outpaced the 5.5 percent decline in issued permits for single-family homes. Completions of homes slowed 5.1 percent during the month to 1.217 million homes (SAAR)—this was 1.9 percent ahead of March 2017’s pace of completions.

#5Home builders’ confidence held strong in April. The National Association of Home Builders’ Housing Market Index (HMI) lost a point to a seasonally adjusted reading of 69. While this was the HMI’s lowest point since last November, it represented the 46th consecutive month with a reading above 50, indicating more homebuilders see the housing market as “good” rather as “poor.” The index slipped in the South and West, held steady in the Midwest, and inched up in the Northeast. Also losing grounds were indices measuring current and expected sales, with the former shedding two points to 75 and the latter slipping by a point to 77. The index for traffic of prospective buyers was unchanged at 51. The press release said that the housing market “remains on solid ground” thanks to “strong demand” with the NAHB expecting “the market to continue to make gains at a gradual pace.”

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending April 14, 2018, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 232,000 (-1,000 vs. previous week; -15,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 231,250 (-5.3% vs. the same week a year earlier).
State Employment (March 2018, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted): Two states had significant increases in payrolls vs. February 2018. 24 states had significant increases in payrolls vs. March 2017.
Treasury International Capital Flows (February 2018, Net Foreign Purchases of U.S. Securities, not seasonally adjusted): +$57.9 billion (vs. January 2018: +$62.5 billion; vs. February 2017: +$38.3 billion).
Business Inventories (February 2018, Manufacturers’ and Trade Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $1.929 trillion (+0.6% vs. January 2018, +4.0% vs. February 2017).
Beige Book 

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current employer. No endorsements are implied.

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