As President Trump approaches his 100th day in office, the Commerce Department will release the monthly report on durable goods tomorrow, a measure of how manufacturers are faring under the buy American, hire American administration. The past few months have shown slow, but steady growth in the durables sector and economists predict much of the same for March. An average of economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicted the headline number should increase by 1.3 percent. But to understand what tomorrow’s report means for the sector and the greater economy, here are five things to watch.
1. Will aircraft orders make the numbers fly?
During the previous two months, the strength of transportation, particularly aircraft sales, lifted up otherwise unimpressive growth in the rest of the durables sector. Some economist think the trend will continue through March and boost the overall number. “The data we have shows that Boeing received quite a few orders for aircraft in the month,” said Michael Gepsen, chief U.S. economist for Barclays Capital Inc. “If that’s the case we should get a pretty strong reading on the headline for this month.” However, transportation can be very volatile from month-to-month and orders are not always a good predictor. If March turns out to to have been a slow month for the transportation industry, the durables report may show minimal growth.
2. Investing for future growth
Durable Goods orders have slowly climbed up after a tumultuous 2016. One sign of a brighter future is the number for capital goods orders. If the number is strong in March, then it means manufacturers expect growth in the future that merits investment now.
“With modest gains in capital goods, I think there’s an indication that with manufacturing, the worst is behind us,” said Ryan Sweet, director of Real Time Economics at Moody’s Analytics. “All in all, manufacturing is grinding its way higher.”
New orders for capital goods have ticked up in the past few months, partially on the optimism of manufacturers that with Trump in office, the sector will improve. But with Trump approaching his 100th day in office without passing significant legislation to reform taxes or to spend big league on an infrastructure overhaul, it will be interesting to see if companies will continue to invest in the future and if those investment eventually turn into more American jobs.
3. Low energy prices boost manufacturing
Manufacturing has benefitted from low energy prices in recent years and it looks like that trend will continue. Crude oil prices hover just around $50 a barrel, which won’t likely change as long as natural gas production continues to surge.
“One key that is important going forward is energy prices,” Sweet said. “Energy prices have firmed in the past few months and that’s provided some energy-related investments.”
4. Is there any chance of a weaker dollar?
The dollar has been painfully high for the past few years, which hurts American manufacturers. A strong dollar makes imports in the United States cheaper and American exports more expensive. The dollar surged after Trump’s election, but has been trending slightly downward since an all-time high in mid-December.
In April, President Trump indicated he thought this was a problem. “I think our dollar is getting too strong, and partially that’s my fault because people have confidence in me,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in an interview.
This week the dollar got some relief after the centrist Emmanuel Macron beat nationalist Marine Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential elections. Markets reacted on Monday, as the Euro rose to its highest value since November 2016. European manufacturers, particularly German ones, have been out-performing American companies, partially because of the currency. Assuming Macron wins the runoff in May, the market may continue to react favorably.
But with the Fed set to raise interest rates again later this year and the economy continuing to expand, it’s unclear how low the dollar will fall. Without a turnaround of this trend, it will be hard for the sector to grow at a significant pace.
5. The Trump effect
The biggest issue on everyone’s mind is the president. Trump was elected on a promise to revive the American manufacturing industry and bring back jobs. To make good on that promise, Trump has a few tools he could implement such as reforming regulations and taxes to reduce costs for manufacturers, altering trade agreements and passing an infrastructure spending bill.
“We don’t look for any substantial growth until we get a change in fiscal policy and tax policy,” Gepsen said. “Mainly tax cuts. We think it will be too difficult to do large scale reform. So it will be centered around tax reform.”
On Wednesday, the Trump Administration unveiled a plan to reduce the business tax rate to 15 percent for both small business and large corporations as well as lowering taxes for individuals.
“We will lower the business rate to 15 percent,” -Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin April 26, 2017
If Congress passes the tax cuts or manages a full tax overhaul, then the positive expectations of the first quarter of 2017 could turn into more solid growth toward the end of the year for the durables sector. However, even if that does happen, it’s not clear how many jobs a resurgent, but highly automated manufacturing sector, will be able to create.