By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON -- U.S. industrial production unexpectedly fell for a fifth straight month in April due in part to a further decline in oil and gas drilling, suggesting that the economy is growing at only a modest pace in the second quarter.
The economy's struggle to pick up steam after a dismal first quarter was underscored by other data on Friday showing a drop in consumer confidence to a seven-month low in early May and only a mild rebound in factory activity in New York state.
Coming on the heels of weak retail sales and producer inflation data this week, the reports suggest the Federal Reserve probably won't raise interest rates anytime soon.
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-These are not the numbers that would inspire confidence in the Fed to tighten policy.%"It means in the next month or so we are unlikely to see a massive rebound in growth momentum. These are not the numbers that would inspire confidence in the Fed to tighten policy," said Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York.
Industrial output slipped 0.3 percent after a similar decline in March, the Fed said. Economists had expected a 0.1 percent gain.
A plunge of 14.5 percent in oil and gas well drilling pushed mining production down 0.8 percent last month. It was the fourth straight monthly decline in mining output.
Crude oil prices have fallen by about 50 percent since last June, resulting in a sharp drop in well drilling activity.
Companies such as Schlumberger (SLM), the world's No. 1 oilfield services provider, and Halliburton have slashed their capital spending budgets for this year. Caterpillar (CAT) has cut its 2015 profit outlook and warned that lower oil prices would hurt its energy equipment business.
Oil and gas drilling is down 46.5 percent over the year and there is no relief in sight despite the recent stabilization of crude oil prices. Oil rig counts continued to decline early in the second quarter.
"We see a further drop in mining investment over the next few quarters and are not convinced that business investment ex-mining will be strong enough to sufficiently offset this drag," said Michelle Meyer, a senior economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC) in New York.
In a separate report, the University of Michigan said its consumer sentiment index fell to 88.6 early this month, the lowest reading since October, from 95.9 in April.
There were slight declines in consumers' attitudes toward purchases of motor vehicles and homes.
%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-876%While economists noted the weak relationship between consumer confidence and consumer spending, they nevertheless saw May's decline as unfavorable. Many of them believe that consumer spending will accelerate in the second quarter as households start drawing on their savings from relatively cheap gasoline prices.
"All things considered, the decline in confidence means that the potential for a pick-up in consumption growth over the next few months is probably smaller than we previously anticipated," said Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.
The economy was slammed earlier in the year by bad weather, port disruptions, a strong dollar and deep spending cuts by energy firms. The government reported last month that GDP expanded at a 0.2 percent annual pace in the first quarter.
But trade and inventory data published after the GDP snapshot suggested the economy actually contracted. Second-quarter growth estimates are currently hovering around a 2.5 percent pace, well below the 4.6 percent pace in the same period last year.
U.S. stocks were marginally weaker, while prices for longer-dated U.S. government bonds rose. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies.
Dollar Dampens Manufacturing
Last month, utilities production tumbled 1.3 percent, also contributing to the weakness in industrial output. Manufacturing production was unchanged after gaining 0.3 percent in March. It was restrained by a 0.9 percent drop in machinery, though motor vehicle production rose.
Manufacturing, which accounts for about 12 percent of the economy, has been dampened by the dollar. Even as the greenback rally fades, factory activity is unlikely to rebound strongly.
In a separate report, the New York Fed said its Empire State general business conditions index rose to 3.09 in May from -1.19 in April. A reading above zero indicates expansion.
While new orders rebounded this month, order books remained depressed and inventories swelled. Labor market indicators also weakened a bit.
"They suggest any pick-up in manufacturing activity will be muted, at best," said Jesse Hurwitz, an economist at Barclays in New York.
By Lucia Mutikani