The case for a second-quarter revival in the US economy took another blow in today’s April report on industrial production. Output slumped 0.3% last month, marking the fifth-straight decline for the monthly comparison, the Federal Reserve reports. The annual pace continues to slide as well, with the year-over-year change dipping to 1.9% for the 12 months through April—the first reading below the 2% line in nearly three years.
There’s clearly a deceleration in macro conditions unfolding and it’s no longer reasonable to argue that it was contained in Q1. It remains to be seen if the deceleration persists, but for the moment it’s obvious that industrial activity has downshifted considerably.
The manufacturing sector is suffering too. Output among manufacturers, which represent about 75% of industrial activity, was flat last month. The no-change performance translates into a year-over-year gain of just 2.3%–the slowest annual rise since last July. Activity in mining and utilities also ramped down last month, and rather sharply, in part due to a downshift in oil and gas drilling, which has been nipped by the sharp slide in energy prices over the past year. Mining was off 0.8% in April as utilities retreated a hefty 1.3% last month, which follows March’s 5.4% dive.
Today’s news gives the Fed another reason to delay its first interest hike, which some analysts have been predicting would come as early as September. That’s looking increasingly unlikely at this point, short of a dramatic turnaround in the data in the next several months.
Meanwhile, the weak data published to date for industrial activity raises the specter of elevated business cycle risk. It’s certainly getting harder to argue that the economy is doing just fine. But despite the recent run of soft numbers, it’s not yet obvious that the economy is slipping into a recession. Casual observation and cherry-picking a set of indicators may suggest otherwise, but in terms of a broad spectrum of data that’s filtered through a relatively objective econometric lens, we’re still not at the tipping point. Yes, we’re a bit closer than we have been in recent history, but it’s still premature to assume the worst.
But that mildly upbeat view could change, and perhaps soon, depending on what we see in the numbers in the weeks ahead. But this much is clear: the macro trend has weakened, although the rebound in job creation in April, along with the bullish trend in initial jobless claims, implies that the latest stumble isn’t fatal.
With that in mind, all eyes now turn to the May economic profile, which of course remains little more than a guess at this point. April, on the other hand, is shaping up as another disappointment. The margin of comfort, in short, is getting uncomfortably thin.