The U.S. economy may have an industrial-sized problem.
In their earnings calls, several companies have warned of an industrial or manufacturing recession. And economic data appear to be lending additional credence to their concerns, given weak manufacturing activity in January and markedly slow durable goods orders in December.
"We don't have enough data to know" that the U.S. is heading into a manufacturing recession, "but it's reasonable to be nervous about it at this point," economist Max Wolff of Manhattan Venture Partners said Thursday on CNBC's "Trading Nation."
"The manufacturing sector may not yet be officially in recession, but that is beginning to feel like merely an academic distinction when durable goods orders have fallen in four out of the past five months," Wells Fargo economists write.
What's more, the latest indications of softness come amid some strikingly bearish commentary from manufacturing- and industrial-exposed companies' fourth-quarter earnings calls.
Dan Florness, the relatively new CEO of industrial supply company Fastenal, commented that softness has been "broadening" from energy companies to "other industries that you don't normally associate with oil and gas, ... companies that are involved in a really weak industrial economy."
More starkly, Kansas City Southern CEO David Starling said that "what we're going through now reminds me a lot of what we were going through back in 2009." He mentioned that another railroad executive surmised that "we are in an energy market depression, an industrial and manufacturing recession."
Michael Ward, CEO of fellow railroad company CSX, noted that "if you take out the recession, we've not seen these kind of pressures in so many markets because you have multiple aspects working against you: The low gas prices, the low commodity prices, the strength of the dollar."
The strong U.S. dollar, in particular, is hazardous to manufacturers' health. As the dollar has risen in value against many other currencies, it becomes more expensive for consumers in those countries to buy goods manufactured in the U.S. This, coupled with weakness in global economies, creates a tricky situation for manufacturers.
Still, there may be reason to believe the first quarter will far better. The preliminary January reading for Markit's manufacturing purchasing managers' index showed a nice rebound in January — after the index hit a 38-month low in December.
Yet even Deutsche Bank's typically bullish Joseph LaVorgna is hesitant to brush the durable goods number aside.
"To be sure, the durable goods data are notoriously volatile, and it is possible that business spending will rebound this quarter. However, given the ongoing weakness in oil prices and the sharp plunge in CEO confidence, we highly doubt this will occur," the economist wrote in a note Thursday. "We are worried that our GDP growth forecast [for the first half of 2016] may be too high."