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The factory sector continues to put the rough patch from 2015 through mid-2016 behind it. The ISM manufacturing composite rose to 57.7 in February, which is the highest since 2014. All of the sub-indices either rose further into expansionary territory or, in the case of order backlog, turned positive after months in the red. The survey’s measure of prices also continued to signal inflation pressures on a broad range of inputs beyond just oil prices. The new orders component of the survey surged to a three-year high, pointing to a much improved outlook for the sector than this time last year. Advance estimates of durable goods orders in January were softer, as core goods orders fell 0.4 percent to start the year, though December’s reading was revised upward. January’s stall in goods orders may be just temporary and, given the broad strength in the survey data, we expect continued firming in 2017.
The second release of Q4 GDP reiterated that the economy is driven by the consumer. The headline 1.9 percent growth was unchanged, but personal consumption contributed more than first reported while government and private investment added less. The post-election bump in consumer confidence held up in February, according to the Conference Board. Consumers were more confident about both the present situation and conditions going forward. Consumers’ assessment of the present situation now stands at its cycle high, as fewer people reported that current conditions were "bad" or that jobs were "hard to get." The share reporting "good" conditions or "plentiful" job opportunities also edged down slightly. The share that expected better business conditions and more jobs six months from now did rise, however.
Consumers’ confidence was not as obvious in the January income and spending data, however, although inflation certainly was. Disposable income rose 0.3 percent in January and spending was up 0.2 percent, although the story reversed when adjusted for inflation. Real disposable income and consumption expenditures declined in January. While January’s soft print may have been an aberration, it bears watching, particularly if economic growth is to accelerate as expected in the current consumer-led GDP growth environment. Meanwhile, inflation continues to accelerate. The PCE deflator, the Fed’s preferred measure of price growth, is honing in on the 2 percent target, with headline PCE up 1.9 percent over the year and core PCE up 1.7 percent in January. The case for a March rate hike can indeed be made, though it may be prudent wait for data to confirm that optimism translated into real economic growth in the first quarter of 2017.
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