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Manufacturing slows, but hiring picks up

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WASHINGTON — A survey shows U.S. manufacturing activity expanded more slowly in March than February, held back by weaker growth in production and new orders. But factories hired at the fastest pace in nine months, an encouraging sign ahead of Friday’s report on March employment.

The Institute for Supply Management said Monday that its index of factory activity slipped to 51.3 percent. The index fell from 54.2 percent in February, which was the fastest growth since June 2011.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion. The index has signaled growth for four straight months, but the drop in March growth was bigger than economists expected.

Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note to clients that the March decline might be the first sign that companies are worried about federal spending cuts that took effect March 1.

Joshua Shapiro, the chief U.S. economist at MFR Inc., cautioned that the index’s drop last month might just be a one-month blip.

Combined, the ISM reports for the first three months of 2013 “suggest that the manufacturing sector is now making moderate headway.”

In addition to faster hiring, new export orders grew faster in March than February.

The ISM said the index was consistent with an annual rate of economic growth of 3.3 percent from January through March, up from a tepid 0.4 percent growth rate the last three months of 2012.

Reports Monday showed manufacturing is on the upswing in China and Japan, the second- and third-largest economies in the world.

Growth in China’s manufacturing picked up in March, according to a survey by the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing. Japanese manufacturers are more upbeat about business conditions than they were last year, according to the Bank of Japan’s “tankan” index for the March quarter.

The U.S. economy has proven surprisingly resilient in the face of tax increases that took effect in January and federal budget cuts that began to kick in March 1.

The government reported Friday that U.S. consumers increased spending in February as their incomes jumped. The University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index showed that Americans were feeling more confident about the economy at the end of March.

Underlying the improvement is a strengthening job market. Employers have been adding 200,000 jobs a month since November, twice the pace from last spring. Unemployment fell in February to 7.7 percent, lowest since December 2008.

Economists expect about the same level of job growth in March.

GEORGIA SEES BIG IMPROVEMENT

ATLANTA — The Georgia Purchasing Manager’s Index rose 6.6 points last month to 61.8, showing growth in the state’s manufacturing sector.

Generally, a reading of 50 points or higher predicts future growth for the overall economy. March was the fourth straight month of increases.

Executives surveyed cited strong orders for new business and the need to bring on additional workers as positive signs at the plants they are responsible for.

“March’s strong jump in new orders and employment were a surprise. These numbers confirm a stronger up-trend, but higher than anticipated,” said Donald Sabbarese, the director of the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University, where the index is compiled. “It’s not clear that these numbers are sustainable, but for now, they are impressive.”

The national March PMI fell 2.9 points to 51.3 after steadily building since November. The national index, compiled by the Association for Supply Management, slid last month on the basis of weakness in new orders.

– Morris News Service


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