The manufacturing surge has slowed, but some resilient trends keep pushing it forward

While the U.S. manufacturing sector has been resurgent for three years and counting, the recovery cooled a bit in the third quarter — and there’s no clear consensus among experts as to the reasons why. The reasons for this leveling off are varied and complicated.

Many experts have lists of theories to explain the slowdown, but there’s a lot less consensus among these authorities’ theories than you might expect. There is one commonality, however, among the experts’ opinions. They remain guardedly optimistic that the rebound will continue but at a slower pace.

“We’re definitely seeing a little bit of a blip in our multiyear recovery over the last couple of months,” says Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers.

“What’s causing that blip is uncertainty — uncertainty caused partly by the ‘fiscal cliff’ everyone has been talking about, partly by the [economic] problems in Europe and a few other factors. We haven’t solved these problems yet, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be solving them anytime soon, so that’s a headwind that we expect is going to be persistent over the next few months and probably longer.”

What happens domestically over the next few months will be hugely important for U.S. manufacturers over the next year or two. That includes next month’s election, how steep the so-called “fiscal cliff” drop-off turns out to be at the beginning of 2013, and then the subsequent direction of the U.S. economy thereafter.

“The biggest unknown out there right now for the U.S. economy is the ‘fiscal cliff,’ and the fact that on Jan. 1, assuming that Congress doesn’t act between now and then, we’re going to see tax increases and spending cuts of around $500 billion to $600 billion,” Moutray says. “That obviously could have some dire consequences for the economy. We’ve had the Congressional Budget Office and a lot of others saying we could have a recession early next year if that’s the case.

“We’re seeing a lot of people in Washington angling to see if they can try to avert that. But there’s an enormous amount of pessimism that that’s going to happen. So that’s a key thing manufacturers are worried about: the uncertainty over what their tax rates are going to be and what the regulatory environment will be like next year.

“People are very engaged in what’s happening in the U.S. election because it obviously will impact manufacturers deeply.”

Nonetheless, Moutray says that on the whole, U.S. manufacturers’ outlook for 2013 is positive but guardedly so.

“Of course, that could all change very quickly,” he says. “We’re seeing some pessimistic numbers coming out right now, which I think should be a wake-up call to folks in Washington that, ‘Hey, maybe this is something we’d better act on. We need to reduce the level of uncertainty in the economy that’s out there.’ ”

Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, agrees that a large number of concurrent factors have conspired to flatten the U.S. manufacturing curve. One crucial factor he points to is import-export problems with both Europe and China.

“One thing that was helping to drive the boomlet in manufacturing over the last few years was increased demand for our exports to Europe and to Asia,” Paul says. “A key reason for that has been that our exchange rate has been, while not perfect, much more suited to exports than it used to be.”

But the days of gangbuster exports to Europe and China are fading.

“We’ve seen that tailing off dramatically over the last couple of months,” Paul says. “The Chinese are reverting to their traditional strategy of continuing to produce and export as much as they can regardless of what the demand is. That creates problems for other countries such as the United States. At the same time, we’re seeing the value of the Chinese currency take a nosedive. That, to me, is troubling.”

Exacerbating this set of complications coming from Asia is a different kind of economic headwind pushing across the Atlantic from Europe.

“Some of Europe is headed back into a recession again, related to the debt crisis financial situation,” Paul says. “That has an impact on demand, on unemployment, on a lot of things. And that, in turn, impacts U.S. manufacturers, because Europe is an important market for us.”

Swinging inventory

Cliff Waldman, senior economist for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, is another insider who attributes the U.S. manufacturing slowdown to a convergence of several factors. Waldman postulates that the key factor was the sharp inventory fluctuations that took place during the recession and in the years since.

“Over the last three to four years, the U.S. economy had probably the sharpest inventory swing in modern history,” Waldman says. “During the panicky days of 2008 and 2009, inventories were liquidated very rapidly. Some companies were liquidating inventories just to raise cash.

“So then, even though we had just a modest turn in the economy after the recession, there had to be a rapid restocking of the shelves just to handle that moderate traffic. That got our factories humming again. If you think about it, manufacturing essentially produces inventories for the economy. So that helped a lot.”

Now, though, the manufacturing sector has caught up with the shelf shortages, so the inventory catch-up surge that got the factories buzzing is dying away.

“The inventory swing is finite,” Waldman says. “Eventually the stocks on the shelves reach short-term equilibrium with the pace of sales. It’s a one-shot deal, in effect. It comes back to equilibrium.”

Another factor in the slowdown has been economic volatility in countries that Waldman labels emerging markets.

“After the recession, we had a stronger and a faster rebound in emerging markets, particularly some of the larger emerging markets, than people had thought,” he says. “China, India, Brazil, Mexico — these markets all felt the downdraft of the crisis in the industrialized world, and they certainly slowed.

“But they implemented policies rather quickly and came back rather quickly. As we all know, over the last decade, U.S. manufacturing has been making a lot of investments in those markets, and the health of those markets has been increasingly important for U.S. manufacturing profitability. This helped propel manufacturing into a more normal recovery than almost any other sector of the economy. That’s why manufacturing was able to lead the recovery.”

However, that’s another development that can be added to the list of trends that drove the manufacturing rebound but have now begun to slow down.

“Now, the storyline is changing,” Waldman says. “The global situation is troublesome, particularly for manufacturing. The activity in the emerging markets is slowing dramatically. That’s why we’re seeing that manufacturing is not really the leader anymore. It’s starting to get mixed up with the troubles of the U.S. and the global economies.”

Durable drivers

But not all of the recovery-driving trends are disappearing. Some look like they’ll have staying power, and that endurance should, barring other unforeseen problems, continue to keep the U.S. manufacturing rebound at least somewhat on track.

Exhibit 1 — leanness and efficiency: “Manufacturers have been able to take advantage of being much more lean and efficient, which has improved their overall competitiveness,” Moutray says. “When I look at the sectors that have done well the last couple of years, I think they’ve taken advantage of exports, which speaks to that level of increased competitiveness.

“Exports are going to be an evermore important part for the manufacturing sector. I think we’re going to continue to find ways that we can better compete.”

Another manufacturing-positive trend expected to have staying power is U.S. manufacturers’ increased competitiveness, which is being fed by several factors: advances in technology, consequent gains in productivity and decreases in costs, particularly energy costs.

“We definitely have seen a little bit of a sea change in terms of the overall competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing,” Moutray says. “Nearly every manufacturing sector is becoming more efficient by using technology. That’s why we’ve seen such huge gains in overall labor productivity the last few years.

“U.S. labor productivity grew more than 5 percent in the first quarter of this year. In the durable goods sector, it was almost 10 percent. Those are unheard of levels of labor productivity growth, and as a result, we’ve seen the overall cost of labor per unit fall dramatically. That has helped keep U.S. manufacturing more competitive.”

Declining energy costs have also been a boon to U.S. manufacturers’ attractiveness relative to foreign competition.

“Another key reason why we’ve seen this boomlet in manufacturing is that energy costs have come down with so much natural gas coming online,” Paul says. “That, in itself, has spawned an industry: supply pipe that goes into the natural gas. But more broadly for manufacturing in general, especially energy-intensive manufacturing sectors, it has helped to bring down their energy costs. And I see that continuing to be a very strong factor.”

Reshoring is another trend expected to have some durability, and thus continue to help U.S. manufacturing sustain its recovery to some degree, Waldman says.

“What appears to be happening — and underline appear, because it’s still in its early stages — is that for global manufacturing supply chains, which are spanning many countries these days, the U.S. is playing a somewhat better, stronger role in terms of production in those global manufacturing supply chains,” Waldman says. “It’s being driven by multinational decision-makers. When they look at the map of their world, U.S. manufacturers are looking more attractive.

“That’s because there are a lot of hidden costs to doing business and to having a production presence in a low-wage economy, and those costs are now becoming less and less hidden. And while the benefits of market potential in emerging economies are tremendous and always will be, these multinational decision-makers are beginning to realize that the costs are a little higher than they thought, so that puts the U.S. and North America in a better position.

“This is clearly a positive for the strength of U.S. manufacturing, and it’s something I think the United States needs to see as a glimmer of light and to capitalize on.”

Policymakers are expected to play a crucial role in the coming years in terms of whether the manufacturing sector continues to recover and perform well.

“We’re in a time that’s somewhat similar to just after World War II, in the sense that policy matters a great deal these days,” Waldman says. “And not just U.S. policy; central bank policies and fiscal policies around the world are absolutely crucial now.

“We’re also in a time where you have to watch policymakers. Manufacturers in the U.S. might have thought some time ago that monetary policy in India or in Europe or even in the Federal Reserve was a bit removed from their business, a bit arcane. Not these days. They need to follow it. It’s crucial. And the same holds true for fiscal policies.

“Over the long term, getting past the sluggishness and the challenge of this year and the next couple of years, we need to make policies that engender long-term investments in our workforce, in innovation, in technologies. So policy around the world matters more to manufacturers now than it has in a generation.”

In the big picture, the resurgence of U.S. manufacturing during the last three years has changed the way the public and political leaders view manufacturers and their role in the economy and in society, and that bodes well for the future of the domestic manufacturing sector.

“I think it’s healthy that we’re hearing more talk about the importance of manufacturing than we have in the past by everyone,” Paul says. “There’s this realization that it has to be part of our future, and everyone — particularly those in leadership positions — seems to be embracing that. I think that’s a very good thing.” <<

How to reach: National Association of Manufacturers, www.nam.org; Alliance for American Manufacturing, www.americanmanufacturing.org; Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, www.mapi.net