Factory Activity Growth Slows Slightly in March

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NEW YORK -- U.S. manufacturing activity slowed in March after nearing a four-year high last month, but the rate of growth and the pace of hiring remained strong, an industry report showed Monday.

Financial data firm Markit said its "flash" or preliminary U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index slipped to 55.5 from 57.1 in February. Readings above 50 indicate expansion.

That fell short of economists' expected reading of 56.5 but was still comfortably ahead of 53.7 in January, suggesting the effects of a harsh winter have started to fade.

The new orders component fell to 58 from 59.6 in February, partly the result of a decline in overseas demand, Markit said. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Output edged down to 57.5 from 57.8 while firms took on workers for a ninth consecutive month.

The survey "adds to evidence that the sector has shrugged off the weather-related weakness seen earlier in the year," said Markit chief economist Chris Williamson, adding the still solid showings for output and new orders was "encouraging news."

Most economists expect the harsh winter that enveloped much of the country in January and February have put the brakes on first-quarter growth. The U.S. economy grew at a 2.3 percent rate in the final four months of 2013.

Williamson said recent trends in manufacturing -- a roughly 4 percent annualized growth rate and about 10,000 to 15,000 new jobs per month -- will nonetheless boost overall U.S. growth.

Markit's flash reading is based on replies from about 85 percent of the U.S. manufacturers surveyed.

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Factory Activity Growth Slows Slightly in March
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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