Industrial production unexpectedly falls as U.S. factories cool

February 15, 2013 03:39 AM

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Industrial production in the U.S. unexpectedly shrank in January as factories took a breather after the biggest back-to-back gain in three decades.

Output at factories, mines and utilities fell 0.1% after a 0.4% gain in December, figures from the Federal Reserve showed today in Washington. The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey called for a 0.2% rise. Manufacturing, which makes up 75% of total production, dropped after revised data for November and December showed the biggest two-month gain since 1984.

A pickup in consumer and business spending toward the end of 2012 and stabilization in overseas markets including China and Europe will help sales at companies such as Deere & Co. and Eaton Corp Plc. At the same time, a higher tax that is trimming Americans’ paychecks and the risk of across-the-board cuts in federal outlays may prevent bigger gains in production.

“Manufacturing will advance slowly this year as long as demand keeps growing and nothing knocks the economy off course,” Guy Berger, an economist at RBS Securities Inc. in Stamford, Connecticut, said before the report. Berger was the third-best forecaster of industrial production over the past two years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “Markets like China and Latin America will help to keep a floor under U.S. exports.”

Another report today showed factories regained their footing this month. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s general economic index climbed to 10, the highest since May 2012 and exceeding the highest forecast in a Bloomberg survey, from minus 7.8 in January. The median projection called for minus 2. Readings greater than zero signal expansion in New York, northern New Jersey and southern Connecticut.

Survey Results

Estimates for total U.S. production from the 81 economists surveyed by Bloomberg ranged from a drop of 0.2% to an increase of 0.5%. The prior month was previously reported as a gain of 0.3%.

Manufacturing, which accounts for about 12% of the economy, dropped 0.4% last month after jumping 1.1% in December and 1.7% in November, the biggest back-to-back gain since January and February 1984.

The output of motor vehicles and parts decreased 3.25 after a 2.9% gain a month earlier, today’s report showed. Excluding autos and parts, manufacturing production fell 0.1% after jumping 0.9% and 1.3% in the previous two months.

Auto Sales

Automobiles are likely to be a source of strength this year, according to other reports. Cars and light trucks sold at a 15.2 million annual rate in January after 15.3 million in December, data from Ward’s Automotive Group showed. Including November’s 15.5 million rate, auto sales over the past three months have been the strongest in five years.

Today’s Fed report also showed that capacity utilization, which measures the amount of a plant that is in use, declined to 79.1% from a four-year high of 79.3% in December.

Utility output rebounded 3.5% after falling 4.5% the prior month. The figures probably reflected a return to more normal weather after an unseasonably warm December had led to a decline in utility production.

Mining production, which includes oil drilling, decreased 1% after being little changed the prior month.

The breakdown of the manufacturing figures showed a mixed reading last month with computers and metals in addition to autos showing declines, while machinery, furniture and clothing advanced.

Rising Revenue

Deere, the largest agricultural equipment maker, raised its full-year profit forecast and posted quarterly earnings that topped analysts’ estimates. First-quarter revenue from machinery gained 18% in the U.S. and Canada and 2% in the rest of the world, the Moline, Illinois-based company said.

“John Deere has entered 2013 on a strong pace,” Susan Karlix, manager of investor communications, said on a Feb. 13 conference call with analysts. “Our key markets remain in good shape, for the most part, and we’re looking for another solid year. True, our near-term outlook is tempered by uncertainties over fiscal, economic and trade issues. This is hurting business confidence and restraining growth.”

Eaton, an industrial equipment manufacturer, also is poised to gain from improving demand. China’s economy is accelerating while in the U.S., housing and non-residential construction will help drive economic growth, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Sandy Cutler said in an interview following Eaton’s quarterly earnings report on Feb. 4.

Obama’s Plans

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address this week, unveiled proposals to revive manufacturing and create jobs, as falling energy prices in the nation and rising labor costs in China make U.S. producers more competitive. His ideas included efforts to bolster clean energy subsidies, hire hundreds of people to lobby foreign companies to open U.S. plants, end tax breaks to firms that ship jobs overseas, and expand free-trade pacts.

Some recent reports show an improving outlook. The Institute for Supply Management’s factory gauge advanced to a nine-month high of 53.1 in January, exceeding the highest estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists.

Growth in jobs and incomes may help cushion the hit to consumer spending from the higher payroll levy used to pay for Social Security benefits. Starting January, that tax rate returned to the 2010 level of 6.2%, from 4.2%.

Bloomberg News

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