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Economic Watch: Mixed Numbers Ahead of Fed Announcement

December 16, 2015

By Evan Lockridge

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Economic reports Wednesday morning ahead of the U.S. Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee didn't offer a clear picture on the state of the economy, with slower manufacturing growth but a boost in housing numbers.

The total amount of activity at the nation’s factories, mines and utilities fell in November, as the manufacturing sector remained slow. Separate reports show a big increase in homebuilding and that inflation is of little threat.

A new U.S. Federal Reserve report shows industrial production fell 0.6% in November from the month before. That follows a downwardly revised 0.4% decline in October (initially reported as a 0.2% drop.)

Manufacturing in October was also revised downward, while a drop in the production of durable goods muted November’s performance.

The reason for the overall decline is the measure for utilities fell as warm weather held down demand for heating. Meanwhile, mining activity was down due to sizable drops in coal mining as well as for oil and gas well drilling.

At 106.5% of its 2012 average, total industrial production in November was 1.2% below its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector declined 0.5 of a percentage point in November to 77%, a rate that is 3.1 percentage points below its 1972–2014 average.

December Manufacturing Slows

Meantime, a first look at the U.S. manufacturing sector for December shows conditions have declined.

The Flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index from financial information services provider Markit Economics fell from a final reading of 52.8 in November to 51.3 this month.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion, while one below is indicative of contraction.

The December headline reading is the lowest since October 2012, while new orders are at their lowest level since September 2009.

The number not only reflects weakness in export orders, which have been soft all year, but  also for domestic markets, especially investment demand in the energy sector, according to Econoday. “This latter detail is also ominous, as many had been hoping that energy spending, having hit deep lows, would begin to rebound. Also note that backlog orders are in contraction for a second month in the weakest monthly reading in three years.”

Econoday notes export orders have been in outright contraction, the result of weak foreign demand made weaker for U.S. goods by the strength of the dollar.

Hello Housing!

Not all the economic news has been glum. A new report shows housing starts and applications for building permits rebounded in November, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Housing starts increased 10.5% from the month before, nearly erasing a 12% drop in October. The number of building permits issued advanced 11% as building applications for single-family homes hit the highest level in nearly eight years.

Core Inflation Up

These reports follow one on Tuesday from the U.S. Labor Department showing consumer prices were unchanged in November from the month before.

This performance in the Consumer Price Index follows a 0.2% increase in October. Energy prices fell 1.3% last month and gasoline dropped even more, shedding 2.4%. Food prices also fell 0.1% in November following a 0.2% gain in October.

The more closely watched “core prices,” which remove the volatile food and energy sectors, increased 0.2% in November from October and are up 2% over the past year. The overall inflation rate is up 0.5% over the past 12 months, its strongest showing so far in 2015.

The Federal Reserve has said numerious times that one of its preconditions for increasing interest rates is that overall inflation needs to be at 2% or greater annually. While 0.5% is far from that requirement, the "core rate" is right on target, leading some analysts to believe this, along with an ever improving job market and manufacturing that's still expanding (albeit more slowly than last year or earlier this year), will be enough for policy makers to push the launch button to push near-zero short-term interest rates 0.25% higher.

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