January 18, 2002
Signs of a Turnaround?
One can look at the indicators of industrial activity in the U.S. economy from at least two different perspectives. Forecasters keep a keen eye on the monthly reports of output at the nation’s factories for any sign of a turnaround in the overall economy. The downturn in the Federal Reserve's Index of Industrial Production for manufacturing was one of the key reasons why the National Bureau of Economic Research declared the U.S. economy to be in recession in the first place. So it makes sense to presume that it would be a rebound in the industrial economy that would tell us when the economy had turned the corner towards recovery.
The industrial data can mean more than that to some individual businesses, however. Scores of manufacturers, traditionally focused on their own bottom line, have been paying a bit more attention to economic data of late. That's because the steep declines in their business over the last nine months have caused them to question how much, if any, of their poor performance reflects on their own efforts, and how much is due to the state of the economy.
There have been some hopeful signs coming out of the manufacturing sector of late, but they still fall short of constituting the much-hoped-for rebound. The Federal Reserve announced that factory output still declined in December, but the decline was only by 0.1 percent. That doesn't repair any of the damage caused by the 10 percent decline in overall output that has occurred since the Fall of 2000. But at least the flow of new red ink has now slowed to a trickle.
Anticipating a turnaround in the manufacturing economy is still a risky undertaking. Before the terrorist attacks in September, what analysts were then calling an inventory correction in manufacturing appeared to be coming to an end, but those hopes were dashed in the weeks of upheaval that followed.
With the manufacturing economy just starting to stabilize, the fact that not all oars in the boat are pulling in the same direction shouldn't be a surprise. The fortunes of the domestic steel industry are reflected in the continued sharp decline of the Industrial Production Index for Primary Metals, down nearly 3 percent in the month of December alone. Likewise industrial machinery facilities have seen a continued drop in activity, and now produce 12.3 percent less than they did twelve months earlier.
But there are individual industries that are faring better as well. The 1.5 percent bump up in the Transportation Equipment industry's output for the month, largely attributable to the generous sales incentives offered by Big 3 automakers, may not be sustainable, but it is welcome nonetheless. More encouragement comes from the mild upticks in output in the fabricated metals and electronic equipment industries, interrupting long strings of monthly declines in each.
All of the industries mentioned above have an important presence in the Indiana economy. And while there's no guarantee that Indiana-based facilities would share equally in a national recovery, it’s certainly a brighter prospect than the alternative.
About the Author
Educational Attainment, the 21st Century Fund and the Future of SchoolingIndiana ranks 42nd in educational attainment.
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