U.S. Manufacturing Powers On Even as Inflation Heats Up in March
(Bloomberg) -- American manufacturing continues to pour on the momentum as the first quarter draws to a close -- despite supply-chain woes and surging materials costs that are driving the inflation debate.
Freshly released March data show an increasing number of factory purchasing managers are reporting faster expansion. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s index of general business activity soared to an almost five-decade high, while the IHS Markit’s preliminary gauge of U.S. manufacturing was the second-strongest in data back to 2007.
Orders continue to grow as the economy gathers steam, while inventories of finished goods and stockpiles of materials remain lean -- a combination that should fuel even quicker production in the months ahead. Yet, therein lies the challenge.
Producers are struggling with shipping and port delays as importers battle over a limited number of available containers that has driven up costs. Those strains existed even before a ship stuck in the Suez Canal this week has raised more questions about the potential for future delays or price increases.
What’s more, steady demand and shortages of supplies needed to manufacture goods have sparked price pressures for inputs.
In February, the share of manufacturers who signaled slower delivery times approached 50%, according to Institute for Supply Management data. Excluding the period that followed the nation’s shutdown to control the spread of Covid-19, that’s the largest share since oil imports from Iran were disrupted in 1979.
Meantime, producers are paying up for everything from copper and aluminum to crude and iron ore. The latest Philadelphia, New York and Richmond Fed surveys highlight growing materials inflation that risks filtering through to higher prices of finished goods for households and businesses.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers this week, however, that he views the current supply-chain bottlenecks and pressure on input prices as temporary.
“We have been living in a world of strong disinflationary pressures -- around the world really -- for a quarter of a century,” Powell told the House Financial Services Committee on Tuesday. “We don’t think a one-time surge in spending leading to temporary price increases would disrupt that.”
New York Fed President John Williams, in a Wednesday event, noted that “we’re still about 9 million jobs lower than we were a year ago in the U.S. economy, so I think that that’s going to keep inflation pressures pretty low for some time.”
Recent manufacturing figures for March support Powell’s forecast. While regional Fed prices received indexes have been increasing, they’re not keeping pace with prices paid.
The Richmond Fed’s latest manufacturing survey showed the region’s manufacturers aren’t expecting much more room to raise prices on their products.
Respondents said they expected prices received to rise an annualized 3.57% six months from now. That compares with the 3.52% increase they’re currently receiving, the smallest difference in seven months.
A March survey from the Kansas City Fed showed that while nearly half of manufacturing firms were able to pass through a majority of materials price increases, just 8% said they could fully pass them through.
Similar results were seen in IHS Markit’s data for both factories and services. The group’s gauge of input prices exceeded the prices charged measure by double digits for only the second time in data back to 2009, suggesting pressure on margins is developing.
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