Midwest Business Robust, but Jobs Growth Weak

Manufacturing Cars
Gary C. Knapp
Manufacturing Cars

Business activity in the U.S. Midwest expanded strongly in December, with new orders jumping to their strongest level in four months even as hiring levels slowed, a report showed Friday.

Analysts suspected that the heartland's many export-related businesses are getting a boost from the weak U.S. dollar, even as the U.S. economy stagnates.

The National Association of Purchasing Management-Chicago business barometer rose to 56.6, its highest level since June, from 52.9 in November.

Economists had forecast the index at 51.8. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in regional activity.

"There's demand in the manufacturing sector and I suspect that it's external demand, not domestic," said Joseph Brusuelas, chief U.S. economist at IDEAGlobal in New York.

The level of new orders jumped to 58.4 from 53.9, matching the recent high from August. Order backlogs also surged, to 60.7, showing the broadest expansion since July 1994.

"Backlogs moved into the 'robust' category, meaning orders that will be met in the final month of the year," Brusuelas said.

At the same time, the employment component fell to 49.0 from 54.4 in November, the second negative reading in three months and the lowest since March.

Prices paid fell to 63.8 from 76.2 a month earlier, a downturn that some analysts suspected could be temporary as crude oil and a range of other raw materials prices climbed again in late December.

Many analysts consider the NAPM-Chicago survey a factory-sector report since the region is relatively industrialized with a focus on the auto sector. But service sector companies and non-profits are also polled.

The index measures activity at companies based in the Chicago area, even if they have operations elsewhere. Analysts look to the Chicago report for clues to the national Institute for Supply Management report on factory activity. The December ISM survey is due on Tuesday and forecast to show marginal expansion.

"On balance, this data can be seen as a positive signal for the ISM manufacturing survey, particularly as the Chicago PMI breakdown is more convincingly improved than the Philly Fed index was weak," said David Sloan, economist at 4CAST Ltd.

Financial market response to the firm Chicago PMI was overrun by weaker-than-expected new home sales for November reported minutes later.

"Given the survey's ability to record swings of 5 to 10 points from one month to the next, the shock value is a little diluted," said Alan Clarke, an economist at BNP Paribas.