Southeastern Manufacturing...a Lion or a Lamb?
Remember the saying, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb?” Its origin is believed to be related to the position of the constellations Leo (the lion) and Aries (the lamb) during the month of March. Some observers suggest that it’s simply an indication that the weather is changing, with the end of winter at the first of the month and the beginning of spring at the end of the month.
I’m not sure which is true, but the weather wreaked havoc on the manufacturing industry the last few months. January and February were particularly tumultuous. Manufacturing contacts in the Southeast reported difficulties receiving supplies, shipping orders, and operating production lines at full capacity because some employees were unable to report to work during those two months. The Atlanta Fed has been monitoring the effects of extreme winter weather on the manufacturing industry. The March Southeast Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) suggests that manufacturing has come back roaring, but we should watch out for a bit of bleating (see the chart).
The Southeast PMI is produced by the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University. A reading on the index above 50 represents an expansion in the manufacturing sector, and a reading below 50 indicates a contraction. The survey provides an analysis of manufacturing conditions in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Representatives from various manufacturing companies are surveyed regarding trends and activities in new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery time, and finished inventories.
The March Southeastern PMI report came in quite strong. The overall reading of 61.5 was its highest since April 2012. There are a couple of different ways to interpret the strong report. With option one, the report is a result of businesses making up for lost production and order backlogs during the previous months, therefore pushing up production and new orders during March. Under option two, underlying demand is improving and will be robust going forward, and March is just the beginning of a strong year. Let’s take a look at the numbers.
The overall March PMI increased 5.5 points over February. The new orders subindex soared 11.2 points to 70.2 and the production subindex vaulted 10.4 points to 65.4. Going back to January, the new orders subindex has increased 21.2 points and the production subindex has risen 17.5 points. No doubt about it, these are solid increases. The employment subindex increased 6.7 points from February’s 52. The supplier delivery times subindex fell 0.3 point from 57 in February, indicating that purchasing agents are getting their supplies slightly faster than the previous month. The finished inventories subindex also fell 0.3 point compared to February. Optimism among purchasing agents increased during March. Fifty-eight percent of survey participants expect production to be higher over the next three to six months.
Whether option one or option two applies remains to be seen. It could be a combination of both. It will be interesting to see the national Institute for Supply Management report in April. Will the rest of the nation experience a similar rise in manufacturing activity? Let’s hope so. We’d like to see the sharp rise in new orders and production in the Southeast resulting from a sustained improvement in demand rather than just a snap-back effect of improving weather. Either way, we will be keeping our eyes and ears open for the lion and the lamb.
By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed’s Nashville branch
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