WASHINGTON – Signaling that manufacturers are leading the economy into a recovery, output from the nation’s factories, mines and utilities posted widespread gains in August.
In a further dose of good news, inflation remained essentially nonexistent as prices scarcely rose last month.
The August gains in industrial production marked the second straight increase after the global recession dried up the appetites of customers worldwide. Output rose 0.8 percent, the Federal Reserve said Wednesday, beating analysts’ estimates.
In part, the improvement reflected auto sales that were boosted by the government’s now-ended cash for clunkers program. But analysts were impressed that output rose broadly across industries.
“Vehicles are not the whole story,” Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said in a note to clients.
Gault noted that production rose in five out of 10 categories of durable goods, including machinery and electrical equipment.
The pace of growth is expected to slow later this year. That’s partly because the stimulative effect of the clunkers program, which issued rebates for people who traded in older gas-guzzlers for new, fuel-efficient models, will fade.
But industrial stockpiles are so low that production should keep rising even as consumer spending remains weak, economists said. Companies had cut their stockpiles by a record $159.2 billion in the second quarter. Low inventories tend to signal higher output ahead, because companies eventually must produce more to refill their depleted stockpiles.
Manufacturers “are in a catch-up mode right now,” Gault said. “They’re adjusting for the fact that the level of demand didn’t meet their worst fears.”
Factory output, the single-biggest slice of overall industrial activity, also rose for the second straight month.
Auto production led the way, rising 5.5 percent in August. That followed a whopping 20.1 percent gain in July, when General Motors and Chrysler reopened many plants that had been closed as the companies restructured and emerged from bankruptcy.
Yet even with autos and parts stripped out, manufacturing activity gained 0.4 percent last month. Production of steel, aluminum and other metals rose 0.9, while electrical equipment and appliances output also increased.
Despite the recent gains, industrial companies are still operating well below capacity. The operating rate in August was 69.6 percent, under the 80 percent consistent with a healthy economy.
Manufacturing output will likely grow more slowly later this year as the clunkers’ impact wears off, said Daniel Meckstroth, chief economist for the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, a business research group.
“We only expect a modest pace of recovery because of the headwinds” that debt-laden consumers face, he said, meaning sluggish spending is likely for months.
Inflation, meanwhile, remains nowhere in sight. The Consumer Price Index rose just 0.4 percent in August, after a flat reading in July, the government said. Prices fell 1.5 percent in the past year, as gas prices dropped sharply from record levels last summer.
The “core” CPI, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, ticked up a scant 0.1 percent, matching expectations. Over the 12 months ending in August, the core rate rose 1.4 percent – the smallest such increase in more than five years.
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