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Economic Watch: Factory Orders, Trade Deficit Improve; Auto Sales Drop

April 4, 2017

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Despite a possible sign auto sales may have plateaued, several economic reports this week continue to look strong, including factory-made goods and the U.S. trade deficit.

New orders for factory-made goods in February were up 1% from the month before following a revised 1.5% hike in January, according to the Commerce Department. This  marked the seventh gain in the past eight months and beat analysts' expectations.

New orders for durable goods, those designed to last at least three years, posted an even bigger February gain, 1.8% from January. This is slightly better than the first published 1.7% improvement and follows a 2.4% jump in January. The February increase was due to increased demand for aircraft.

Shipments of factory-made goods increased 0.3% in February from the month before, marking the 11th monthly gain over the past 12 months. Shipments of durable goods moved up 0.3% in February, the same as an earlier report, following a January decline.

The report also showed new orders for nondefense capital goods minus aircraft, a proxy of business investment, dipped 0.1% in February, the first fall-off since September. However, shipments of these goods improved 1%, suggesting an increase in business spending, according to Reuters.

“Although [overall] orders still look weak relative to recent purchasing managers’ indices, today’s report offers additional evidence that business spending has improved over the first quarter,” said Tim Quinlan, senior economist at Well Fargo Securities.

“The trend remains solidly upward, with core orders rising at a 9.4% three-month average annualized rate.”

He noted that while nondefense capital goods orders excluding aircraft slipped, “the trend remains solidly upward, with core orders rising at a 9.4% three-month average annualized rate.”

The purchasing manager’s indices Quinlan referred to were released on Monday, revealing that while U.S. manufacturing activity in March showed slower growth, the level was still strong.

Light Vehicle Sales May Be Leveling Off After Big Gains

However, separate figures revealed auto sales in the U.S. during March slipped, coming in below analysts’ expectations and raising the prospect that a long boom in sales may be nearing its end.

The automobile industry publication WardsAuto reported sales of light vehicles slipped to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.53 million last month, lower than a consensus expectation of 17.3 million in a Reuters survey. Total sales for March were 1.56 million, below expectations of 1.62 million, and a 1.6% drop from February’s sales level.

The Detroit Free Press newspaper reported that the decline, while modest, shows that the industry may have finally hit a plateau after seven years of increasing sales and two consecutive years of record totals.

Both passenger cars and light truck sales fell in the month on a seasonally adjusted basis. Car sales fell to 6.1 million from 6.3 million, and light trucks dropped to 10.5 million from 11.2 million. Year-over-year, overall sales were down 1.6%, with passenger car sales down 11.5% but light trucks up 5.6%.

The pullback in auto sales is significant and will weigh on first quarter consumer spending, capping off a quarter that looks to be the weakest in a year, according to James Marple, senior economist at TD Economics.

“The weak print implies a soft handoff for U.S. consumer durables spending into the second quarter as well,” he said. “We do not expect sales to return to peak levels of over 18 million units at the end of last year, but there does appear to be a bit of ‘residual seasonality’ in the numbers whereby a weak first half of the year is followed by a relatively strong second half.”

Marple believes with a healthy overall economy, strong labor market, and still-low interest rates, this could well prove to be the case again this year.

U.S. Trade Deficit Falls Sharply

Lastly, a measure of trade between the U.S. and the rest of the world fell 9.6% from the previous month to $43.6 billion. Most of the decline was due to a 1.8% drop in imports while exports rose 0.2%. Most surprisingly, the trade deficit with China narrowed greatly, falling 26.6% below January’s level.

A large drop in the importation of automotive and consumer goods products was the culprit of the decline in imports of goods in February, according to Well Fargo Securities,

Imports, which are used as a negative in calculating the nation’s growth domestic product (GDP), fell in February, after increasing in January. Exports, which are positive in calculating GDP figures, increased in February after jumping by an even larger amount the month before.

"The improvement in the February trade deficit is consistent with the softness we have seen in U.S. consumer demand,” said Eugenio J. Alemán, senior economist for Wells Fargo Securities. “Furthermore, yesterday’s release of a very weak Wards automobile sales report for March could put further downward pressure on the deficit if this weakness extends into the third month of the quarter.”

Some are predicting the improved trade numbers could help boost first quarter GDP numbers when they are released later this month. However, other analysts are sticking to their forecasts of around annual growth of 2% or less, following news last week the U.S. GDP grew at an annual rate of 2.1% in the final three months of 2016, slightly better than the earlier estimate of 1.9%

 

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