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Manufacturing Maladies

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Money and Markets
YOUR BEST SOURCE FOR THE UNBIASED MARKET COMMENTARY YOU WON'T GET FROM WALL STREET
Manufacturing Maladies
by Jon Markman

Dear ,

Jon Markman

Last week brought a frightful Dallas Fed Manufacturing report, which showed manufacturing activity in the region contracting for the 10th straight month. Now, I want to point out that manufacturing activity has been weak across the country.

The clever data analysts over at Bespoke Investment Group figured out a cool way to illustrate this is through the heat map below. In it, they show the five most widely followed regional Fed manufacturing indices and color-coded them based on whether the monthly readings were above or below zero.

On Tuesday came the last of the October releases when the Richmond Fed Manufacturing report came in at -1. As shown by the red shading in the graphic, all five of September's and October's reports came in below zero, which hasn't happened since the last recession in 2009. Anytime you have to go back to the last recession to find a similar occurrence of something happening, it should be of concern, Bespoke notes.

The big caveat this time around, though, is that unlike in 2008 when manufacturing was collapsing along with housing, employment, and overall confidence, in the current period manufacturing is closer to being an odd man out than a representative sample of overall economic activity, Bespoke analysts observe. Still, it's worth a spot in the back of your mind.

Profits Recessions

When you look at the manufacturing data, and combine it with generally weak corporate earnings reports outside big tech, you have to wonder why the Fed seems to be in such a hurry to raise rates.

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TIS Group analysts noted in a report last week that corporate earnings are in danger of declining for two consecutive quarters. The Fed has not raised rates during a profits recession and that is what the U.S. is facing now, the TIS analysts argue. Profits recessions are followed by corporate cost-cutting, job losses, reduced cap-ex, facilities consolidations and closures.

These are some of the signals a U.S. recession is unfolding and we are in place already. Consider that 3M just axed 1,500 jobs, cap-ex in oil producing parts of the country is evaporating and job losses accelerating. Even Wal-Mart (WMT), long the bastion of earnings health, can't hack it.

What we are really seeing is reduced demand in so many dimensions, and that is leading companies to spend more to capture more customers and hold off on hiring. Add the higher dollar, and you can see why margins are being gnawed away.

Profits recessions don't necessarily lead to full-blown economic recessions, but they sure don't help, especially as the effects of zero interest rates and massive injections of credit wear off.

This is an environment at the very least where scale matters most, which is why we are seeing so many big mergers and also why we are seeing large companies outpace the success of small ones. It's an environment where the Amazon.coms and Microsofts of the world can still succeed, but fewer and fewer others.

As the TIS Group analysts conclude, and I would echo, can the Fed really hike in this environment?

Best wishes,

Jon Markman

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The investment strategy and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of any other editor at Weiss Research or the company as a whole.

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