Durable goods orders rose at a 3.0% pace in December, stronger than many had expected, and was revised up for the month of November. About a third of the gains came from a pickup in aircraft orders, which have long lead times and provide little insight into the near-term outlook for business investment. Capital goods orders excluding defense, which provide a better gauge of investment over the next several months, rose at a more robust 5.8% pace in December. This is welcome news, given concerns about the private sector’s ability to pick up slack now that defense orders are contracting.
Non-defense capital equipment shipments increased at a less robust 2.6% pace, after essentially flatlining in November. Gains were fairly broad-based but are still linked closely to the auto industry. Automakers, in particular, have now hit the point where they must reopen and retool idled plants, which are now needed, given the rebound in auto demand. Inventories rose as the auto sector continued to catch up on earlier production losses.
Separately, jobless claims rose 21,000 back to 377,000 in the last week, which keeps them in line with the more subdued (and welcome) trend that we saw emerge at the end of the fourth quarter. The four-week moving average is now at 377,500; that is consistent with an economy that is generating about 150,000 or more jobs a month: welcome news after the stumble we saw at the start of January.
Bottom Line: The manufacturing sector appears to be regaining momentum lost in mid-2011. Business optimism, in particular, seems to be picking up, which is critical to the growth and competitiveness of the U.S. economy over the long haul. That said, the gains are still small, considering the amount of cash large companies have amassed. The Federal Reserve, in particular, is watching this sector for more of a sustained and robust rebound.