Because the Financial Times is one of the world’s truly great newspapers (no, it’s not a long list), I was surprised to see its latest coverage of U.S. manufacturing data make a fundamental mistake. The paper’s report on yesterday’s December figures from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) confuse the demand for manufactured goods with the production of manufactured goods. As a result, readers got an off-base description of the state of American manufacturing and its main challenges, and an equally erroneous picture of how these challenges can be overcome.
As I’ve written repeatedly, surveys like those conducted by the ISM are deeply flawed measures of manufacturing’s health to begin with. The main problem: their “survivorship bias,” which means that they only provide readings on the well-being of companies remaining in the sector at a given time. They say nothing about whether the industry itself is growing or shrinking.
But the Financial Times‘ article was comparably misleading when it claimed that the poor ISM December numbers showed that U.S. manufacturing’s problem nowadays is weakening demand for its products. Where recent months are concerned, that may be partly true. And certainly, many of the biggest foreign economies to which American manufactures sell have seen their own economic growth remain sluggish or slow further.
The ISM, however, also reported that both America’s manufacturing imports have fallen on a monthly basis for three straight months. We’ll need to wait until the Census Bureau’s December U.S. trade figures are released (early next month) to know if that’s really true or not. (Census’ methodology is not affected by survivorship bias, and in fact its latest data show that America’s manufacturing imports rose between August and September, and between September and October.)
But what’s unmistakably true over the longer, and more meaningful, run is that whatever total slackening there has been in overall U.S. demand for manufactures, the sector’s main main headwind comes from elsewhere – specifically, abroad. In fact, through the first ten months of this year, although manufactures exports were down by 6.10 percent over 2014 levels, imports were up by 1.52 percent. In other words, the biggest demand problem facing domestic industry is that too much of the demand for this sector’s output in America – its biggest market by far- is being supplied from abroad. And it’s a problem that’s far from new.
The inadequacy of demand for domestically produced manufactured goods is evident from the ongoing surge in the U.S. manufacturing trade deficit – which keeps setting new annual and monthly records. But this particular demand problem is also clear from different figures that compare the growth of America’s manufacturing production versus the growth of the country’s market for manufactured goods – i.e., its purchases of such goods from all sources, at home and abroad.
The U.S. government’s statistical agencies don’t make displaying his comparison inordinately easy, but a reasonably accurate and up to date picture can be created from separately compiled figures on the gross output of manufacturers located in America with the nation’s trade data. The U.S. market for manufactures consists of domestic output plus imports (which are, after all, consumed domestically) minus exports (which are consumed abroad).
For these purposes, the gross output data is more appropriate than the value-added data, since they reflect the production of all the manufactured inputs used in final products, rather than seek to avoid “double counting” both these inputs and the final products that contain them. The more comprehensive measure allows a more valid comparison with the export and import figures, which count inputs and final products separately, too.
Measured by gross output, American manufacturing production grew by 38.06 percent (before inflation) between the start of the current weak recovery in the second quarter of 2009 and the second quarter of 2015 (the latest available figures). That’s actually faster than the growth of total U.S. gross output during this period (28.59 percent). But the American manufacturing market – the demand for manufactured products – grew by 44.41 percent.
Moreover, most of this manufacturing gross output growth took place during the early part of the recovery, when the sector was snapping back from a near-death recessionary experience. Between 2009 and 2011, this production expanded by 24.89 percent in current dollars. From then until 2014 (the last full-year numbers available), this rate slowed to 10.68 percent, and 2015 will undoubtedly come in even worse.
To be sure, there’s been a bigger percentage slowdown in manufacturing import growth between 2009 and 2014 – 38.95 percent between 2009 and 2011 versus 11.94 percent since. But in addition to the absolute numbers being much bigger, the slowdown in export growth has been even greater: 39.31 percent to 10.21 percent.
Obviously, the faster the American economy grows, the faster its demand for manufactures will increase, and more production will result. But to achieve the industrial rebound so many U.S. leaders – including President Obama – have identified as necessary – much more will be needed. And given the persistently wide gap between American manufacturing demand and American manufacturing production, a thoroughgoing trade policy overhaul must be part of the mix.
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