Slower Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization Signal US Not Immune to Slower Global Growth

Jon C. Ogg

Industrial production contracted by a rate of 0.1% during the month of March. The fear here is that, even if it is a very low drop, that a slowing global economy is adding pressure on U.S. manufacturing activity.

The Federal Reserve’s seasonally adjusted number looks worse when compared to the consensus expectation from the Wall Street Journal for a gain of 0.2%. Econoday was calling for a 0.3% gain for March.

Where thing’s get complicated is in evaluating this monthly versus annually. The annual gain from March of 2018 was actually up 2.8%. The largest component is manufacturing output, and that reading was flat in March, after having seen slight declines for February and January.

Manufacturing output for the entire first quarter was down by 1.1% on annualized rate, and that broke a streak of five consecutive quarters of growth.

One concern here is that the United States is proving to not be entirely immune to the slowing global growth story. While the drop was small, what if the pressure against global growth remains or gets worse rather than starting to improve later in 2019?

The volatile mining sector, which includes oil and gas extraction, declined by 0.8 percentage points in March’s monthly reading, but it was still up by 10.5% when compared to March of 2019.

Apparently, the world remains awash in capacity as well. The Federal Reserve showed that capacity utilization fell by 0.2 percentage points to 78.8% in March. The Wall Street Journal had forecast capacity utilization to come in with a gain to 79.2% in March. Econoday’s consensus estimate was 79.1%.

The utilities sector showed a small 0.2 percentage point gain in March after a much larger one in February, and that took the annual gain to 3.8%. Capacity utilization in the utilities sector was flat at 79.9% for March’s monthly reading but was still 2.1 percentage points higher from this time a year ago.

For the market groups observation as a whole, the Federal Reserve’s report said:

The major market groups recorded mixed results in March. Gains for nondurable consumer goods, business equipment, defense and space equipment, and construction supplies were slightly more than offset by losses for other market groups. The largest decline was recorded by consumer durables; the indexes for all of its major categories fell, with the biggest decrease posted by automotive products.

These are not exactly numbers that should create panic scenarios, but these also are hardly anything that will kindle the fires in the belief the United States can remain immune to outside global growth slowing.