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Factory-Gauge Plunge Fuels Concerns That U.S. Growth Is Slowing

Jeff Kearns and Katia Dmitrieva
Factory-Gauge Plunge Fuels Concerns That U.S. Growth Is Slowing

(Bloomberg) -- A gauge of U.S. manufacturing plunged by the most since the 2008 recession a day after Apple Inc. cut its revenue outlook, fueling concern that the trade war with China is taking a bigger-than-expected toll on economic growth.

The Institute for Supply Management index dropped to a two-year low, missing all estimates in Bloomberg’s survey, led by new orders slumping the most in almost five years and the steepest production slide since early 2012. Just 11 of 18 industries reported growth, the fewest in two years.

“There’s just so much uncertainty going on everywhere that businesses are just pausing,” Timothy Fiore, chairman of ISM’s manufacturing survey committee, said in an interview. “No matter where you look, you’ve got chaos everywhere. Businesses can’t operate in an environment of chaos. It’s a warning shot that we need to resolve some of these issues.”

The weakness builds on signs that President Donald Trump’s trade war and a fading lift from fiscal stimulus are weighing on American producers. Previous reports showed five Federal Reserve indexes of regional manufacturing all slumped in December, the first time they’ve fallen in unison since May 2016. Together, those are troubling indications for the economy ahead of the monthly jobs report due Friday, showing how the labor market fared at the end of 2018.

Read More: Economists See No Repeat for Strong 2018 U.S. Job Gains

“While still at a level indicative of growth, the substantial decline, particularly in new orders and production components, is reflective of rising concerns over slowing global growth translating to weaker U.S. growth,” Citigroup Inc. economist Veronica Clark said in a note on the ISM data.

The ISM index compiled from a survey of manufacturers has tumbled sharply from a 14-year high in August, though it remains above the 50 dividing line between expansion and contraction. The 5.2-point drop from the prior month has been exceeded just twice this century, both times during recessions: in the financial crisis a decade ago and following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack.

Signs of trade-related spillovers in the world’s largest economies and other export-oriented nations are multiplying. China’s official factory gauge has fallen into contractionary territory, and a global manufacturing index from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and IHS Markit dropped to the lowest level since 2016.

Smartphone maker Apple on Wednesday cut its revenue outlook for the first time in nearly two decades. White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett on Thursday warned in a CNN interview that Apple wouldn’t be the only U.S. company with lower earnings.

Several manufacturers in the ISM report noted tariffs and higher prices have made operations less competitive, though just over a third of surveyed firms mentioned trade tariffs, down from the peak in November when that figure was 50 percent, Fiore said.

“Tariffs and trade tensions are finally biting,” Omair Sharif, senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale SA, said in a note to clients, citing import and export measures pulling back from multi-year highs reached last February. “When it comes to trade, the impact on the factory sector is pretty clear.”

Thursday’s ISM report showed a gauge of imports fell to the lowest since May 2017, while an export orders index climbed from an almost two-year low for its first gain in three months. Fiore noted that exports will likely continue weakening as global demand wanes, companies fail to pass down price increases and margins tighten.

The measure of new orders and the reading for production both eased to the lowest since 2016. The index of supplier deliveries slumped to a one-year low, indicating bottlenecks remain but are easing.

“The deterioration in the survey data over the past several months has contributed to our view that recession risks have increased,” Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan, said in a note.

Recession indicators are picking up. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg last month lifted their odds of contraction in the coming year to 20 percent from 15 percent, the first rise in 18 months. A New York Fed gauge puts the chances of a recession at almost 16 percent a year from now, according to the latest available data. That’s the highest probability since 2008.

Gloomier data may give Fed policy makers, who have already said they intend to slow the pace of interest-rate hikes, more reason to pause. Ahead of the ISM report on Thursday, Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan said the central bank should put rates on hold as it waits to see how uncertainties about global growth, weakness in interest-sensitive industries and tighter financial conditions play out.

Meanwhile, ISM prices paid gauge fell to the lowest since June 2017. While that may largely reflect the recent plunge in oil, it adds to signs of tame inflation that provide little urgency for Fed rate hikes.

--With assistance from Chris Middleton, Katia Dmitrieva and Sophie Caronello.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeff Kearns in Washington at jkearns3@bloomberg.net;Katia Dmitrieva in Washington at edmitrieva1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Scott Lanman at slanman@bloomberg.net, Jeff Kearns

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