May 18, 2001
Manufacturing's Slide Continues
The decline in the U.S. manufacturing economy has not yet hit bottom, according to reports on April industrial activity released by the Federal Reserve. Although earlier reports showing rebounding consumer spending and low inventories gave hope that production schedules might pick up in the coming months, factory managers across a wide spectrum of industries saw things otherwise. The Fed's Index of Industrial Production pours some cold water on the notion that the economy has passed the danger point of slipping into recession, and gives support for the central bank's continuing aggressive moves to stimulate the economy.
The second quarter of the year started out the same as the first for most manufacturers. The overall manufacturing index was down by 0.3 percent in the month of April, and has now dipped below its level of a year ago. That downturn has cost the U.S. economy more than a half million manufacturing jobs, and has battered the revenue intake of manufacturing-intensive states like Indiana.
As we move past the point where the slide can be considered to be an inventory adjustment and towards something that looks more like a bona fide retrenchment, it is becoming apparent that it is the stagnation in spending by businesses themselves that is the real culprit. The love affair of American business with technology has come to a surprisingly abrupt end.
This can be seen most dramatically by the recent performance of the electronic equipment industry, which includes most categories of computers and telecommunications equipment. Output in this sector stands at nearly 600 percent of its level in 1992, growing at a steady 20-30 percent clip for most of the years since that time. But 2001 has been a cruel surprise to high tech manufacturers like Cisco Systems and Gateway, who have collectively cut back on production for the first time in their short histories.
But the "usual suspects" of any manufacturing downturn aren't faring any better. Steel production, suffering from declines in demand at the same time as market share is threatened by imports, is now fully 16 percent lower than this time last year.
If business spending slackens, can an interruption in productivity growth be far behind? Fed chairman Alan Greenspan sought to reassure us that the dismal first quarter productivity report did not signal an end to the technology-led surge in operating efficiencies that have fueled so much real economic growth.
But his actions suggest otherwise. By lowering short term interest rates by 50 basis points on the heels of a first quarter GDP report that showed the economy still growing, the Fed was clearly attacking what it sees as the most daunting challenge ahead: getting businesses to spend money. With 2001 starting out with one of the worst corporate earnings performances in recent memory, however, the best that can be hoped for a modest pickup in capital spending might not be enough to stop the bleeding in factories nationwide.
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