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Current Data Reports: Where Are We Heading?

Apr. 11, 2011 1:19 PM ET
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Seeking Alpha Analyst Since 2009

This article originally appeared in The Daily Capitalist.

Here are some quick hits of economic data that have been reported in the past several days. I am convinced that "something is still happening" in that we are seeing continuing signs of improvements in most major categories of economic data (excluding the real estate markets) and we would be foolish to ignore the trend. The meaning and causes of this "something" is not what you think. Unless otherwise stated, the data comes from Econoday.

Manufacturing Index

New orders, export orders and backlog orders slowed during March in an otherwise solid ISM manufacturing report. The composite headline index, which got a big lift from a slowing in supplier deliveries and from continued strength in production and employment, edged back only two tenths to a still very strong 61.2 that indicates month-to-month growth in overall activity at roughly the same level as February.

But the order data show significant slowing in the rate of monthly increase in a hint that manufacturing momentum, or at least that of ISM's sample, may have peaked in February. Input prices remain severely elevated but are not likely to be distorting the ISM's data which are based on volume, not dollar totals. On the impact of the Japanese situation, the ISM says it's still too early to see any impact which it suspects will ultimately be centered in technology and autos.

Non-manufacturing Index

Growth in the US non-manufacturing sector slowed in March according to ISM data headlined by a nearly 2-1/2 point drop in their composite index to 57.3, which is still well above 50 to indicate month-to-month growth but is sizably below February to indicate a slowing rate of growth. Slowing is especially pronounced in output where the business activity index fell back more than seven points to 59.7, again above 50 to indicate growth but below February's rate of growth. The slowing in output shows up in employment where a nearly two point dip to 53.7 points to a moderating rise in the number of employees for the sample.

New orders also moderated yet very slightly, down three tenths to 64.1 which nevertheless does represent a second straight month of slowing. A nice positive is a rise in backlogs, up four points to 56.0 which is a very strong reading for this index. Other data include a steady rate of inventory accumulation and a slight moderation in delivery delays. Price inputs remain severely elevated but a little less severely than February.

Wholesale Trade

From the Census Bureau:

Sales. The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that February 2011 sales of merchant wholesalers, except manufacturers’ sales branches and offices, after adjustment for seasonal variations and trading-day differences but not for price changes, were $379.0 billion, down 0.8 percent (+/-0.7%) from the revised January level, but were up 13.7 percent (+/-1.4%) from the February 2010 level. ... Compared to last month, sales of furniture and home furnishings were down 4.1 percent and sales of electrical and electronic goods were down 2.6 percent. Sales of nondurable goods were down 0.4 percent (+/-0.7%)* from last month, but were up 14.7 percent (+/-1.6%) from last year. Sales of farm product raw materials were down 3.5 percent from last month, while sales of grocery and related products were up 3.5 percent.

Inventories. Total inventories of merchant wholesalers, except manufacturers’ sales branches and offices, after adjustment for seasonal variations but not for price changes, were $438.0 billion at the end of February, up 1.0 percent (+/-0.2%) from the revised January level and were up 12.7percent (+/-1.2%) from a year ago.

Inventories/Sales Ratio. The February inventories/sales ratio for merchant wholesalers, except manufacturers’ sales branches and offices, based on seasonally adjusted data, was 1.16.  The February 2010 ratio was 1.17.

Jobless Claims

Jobless filings are moving lower one step at a time with initial claims at 382,000 in the April 2 week vs. 392,000 in the prior week (revised from 388,000). The four-week average of 389,500 is down more than 5,000 from a month ago. Continuing claims edged lower in the March 26 week, to a four-week average of 3.746 million with the month-ago comparison showing a 100,000 decline. Unadjusted data show 8.52 million claiming benefits during the March 19 week, down nearly 250,000 from the prior week.

Consumer Credit

Consumers are keeping a tight grip on their wallets as revolving credit contracted for the 28th time in 29 months, down $2.7 billion in February and making December's $2.0 billion rise a more distant memory. Rising concerns over inflation and weakening confidence in income are limiting consumer activity. Non-revolving credit is on a seven-month increase, up $10.3 billion in February on strong vehicle sales [and student loans]. Yet the outlook for vehicle sales, and with it growth in non-revolving credit, is uncertain given a decline in unit sales during March and ongoing Japanese supply disruptions this month.

Consumer Spending

From Gallup:

Wall Street ended the first quarter bullish, despite numerous economic and political challenges. Yet Gallup's economic data for the first three months of 2011 suggest that American consumers have not been similarly bullish in their spending habits.

Overall self-reported daily consumer spending in stores, restaurants, gas stations, and online averaged $64 per day in March. That is up slightly from $58 in January and $61 in February but is essentially the same as the $63 of March a year ago.

Consumer outlays on normal daily retail purchases remain mired in the 2009-2010 new normal spending range. Upper-income consumers, who have the disposable income to spend, are not doing so. Lower- and middle-income consumers are spending slightly more on gas and food as prices increase, but are spending no more overall than they did during the first quarter of 2010.

If lower- and middle-income consumers limit their spending in other areas as gas prices surge, their total spending is likely to decline, as it has in the past. If upper-income consumers also continue to restrain their spending -- perhaps dampened by surging prices along with economic uncertainty stemming from the budget battles in Washington, D.C., chaos in the Middle East, and the tragedy in Japan -- it is hard to see spending getting out of the 2009-2010 new normal spending range in the months ahead.

Consumer Confidence

Gallup's weekly economic confidence poll remained in negative as of April 5, 2011:

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

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