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Tragedy or Comedy: The Economic Story in Data

When facing the prospect of industry-specific slowdowns or a rolling recession, it is important to use the data most applicable to your industry to track your performance and anticipate changing customer demand.
Dec 06, 2023

In July of 2016, orders of manufacturing technology, measured by the U.S. Manufacturing Technology Orders (USMTO) Report published by AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology, hit a trough. Although this trough wasn’t as deep as the one brought about by the 2008 financial crisis or the one brought about by the COVID recession just four years later, its significance to the present economic situation is becoming more and more apparent.

For quite some time now, economists have been warning of a coming recession. Citing the strong labor market, many have also made comparisons to the relatively short and shallow recession which affected the U.S. economy in late 2001. As time goes on and more data becomes available, another possibility is that the future will bring a “rolling recession,” where different sectors experience minor contractions on a rolling basis, but the overall economy will avoid tipping into recession. This is strikingly similar to the experience of the manufacturing sector from late 2015 into 2016. Examining some of the trends from that period helps infer the likely direction of the manufacturing sector, the length of any coming downturn, and what could be expected from the subsequent recovery.

What’s in a Name?

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) is the organization responsible for determining when the U.S. economy is in recession as well as assigning the beginning and ending dates. Recessions are defined as a broad contraction in economic activity, so NBER tends to weigh economy-wide metrics when determining if a recession has occurred. According to NBER’s website, the Business Cycle Dating Committee tends to give the most weight to measures of personal income and employment when determining the beginning and end of a recession.

From the end of the financial crisis in 2009 to the onset of the recession brought about by the COVID lockdowns, employment in the United States grew by nearly 17% at an almost linear rate. While employment growth like that would generally point to strong economic growth, another story was developing in the manufacturing sector. Over the same time span, manufacturing employment only grew by 9.5% and included a period from August 2015 to November 2016 where employment contracted for nine out of the 16 months for a net loss of about 7,000 manufacturing jobs. For comparison, the overall economy added 3.2 million jobs in that same 16-month span. While the overall economy was not officially in recession during this period, something was clearly happening in the manufacturing sector.

What’s Past Is Prologue

Because the downturn in manufacturing employment was so small compared to the conditions in the overall economy, it would be easy to imagine how someone without a close connection to the manufacturing sector could have overlooked the downturn. A New York Times article from 2018 dubbed the 2016 manufacturing recession “The Most Important Least-Noticed Economic Event of the Decade.” But the reality of the situation was quite severe. In the third quarter of 2015, manufacturing accounted for 11.8% of the overall U.S. economy. It would fall to 11.1% over the course of the next four quarters. While the drop in GDP share is a function of both declines in manufacturing output and growth in other sectors, we can really isolate the impact of 2016 by looking at industrial production.

Ahead of the 2001 recession, industrial production peaked in June 2000, nine months prior to the official beginning of the recession in March 2001. The dollar value of manufacturing technology orders peaked in September 2000, two months later than industrial production (see the charts of industrial production on page 18). Units ordered, on the other hand, only began a sustained decline two months into the recession, in May 2001.

The 2008 financial crisis was a little different because industrial production peaked in the same month the recession officially began, December 2007. The dollar value of manufacturing technology orders didn’t hit a peak until seven months later, and because IMTS boosts sales, a sustained decline only began in October 2008. Units ordered peaked in September 2008 and continued to decline thereafter.

The difference in timing of the decline in industrial production and the onset of the recession may be explained by the different factors that caused each recession. In 2001, a general lack of consumer demand for manufactured goods, coupled with decreasing demand for U.S. goods abroad, led to declining business investment. In this case, the decline in industrial production was one of the causes of the recession, leading to a lag between the peak and the onset of the recession. The 2008 financial crisis, as its name implies, began primarily in the financial sector and took a little longer to affect industrial production. The reason for the lag between the decline in industrial production and orders of manufacturing technology is a little less clear but will likely be the topic of a future article in this magazine.

Unlike the previous two official recessions, the dollar value of manufacturing technology orders peaked in October 2014, one month prior to industrial production reaching its peak. The trend in unit orders was similar to the previous two official recessions and peaked five months after industrial production began its decline in April 2015. In the prior two recessions, industrial production quickly turned around after hitting its lowest level, beginning to rise within a month or two of the official end of the recession. In the 2016 example, industrial production declined until March 2016 and remained stagnant at those lower levels until it finally began to increase in February 2017. This extended period of lower production resulted in an extended period of slow growth for both the number of units and the value of manufacturing technology orders. Once the industry emerged from this period of stagnant growth, 2018 saw record order levels that would only be surpassed by the recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

Every Cloud Engenders Not a Storm

The current level of manufacturing technology orders remains above historical averages, but since the middle of 2022, they have fallen at a faster rate than what the wider economy’s growth would imply. Industrial production has been at a plateau for the last six months and has yet to show a sustained decline. If the economy is entering a period similar to the 2001 recession, we would expect industrial production to enter a period of decline, followed in the next few months by declines in the value of manufacturing technology orders. This declining production and investment would eventually trigger a recession several month later. These patterns have yet to emerge in the data, but it is also too soon to compare the patterns to 2016 as well. While manufacturing technology orders have declined from their post-COVID highs, they remain at historically elevated levels. In 2016, orders dipped below their historical average as they had in both prior official recessions. Additionally, industrial production has yet to turn downward.

Unlike the situation in 2016, 2008, or 2001, extremely tight labor conditions may insulate the consumer (and broader economy) from the effects of a recession. The rapid tightening from the Federal Reserve has likely already begun to affect capital investment and some consumer demand. Keeping watch on the industrial production data could offer insights into whether manufacturing technology orders will continue to decline and the speed at which orders could rebound. Coupling those data points with broader measures of employment could give an early warning sign that the economy has tipped into recession, even if NBER has not yet made the official determination.

Which Grain Will Grow and Which Will Not

The experience of 2016 shows how both economists and policymakers can inadvertently miss an important economic event when looking only at the aggregated data, even in a sector as large and important as manufacturing. When facing the prospect of industry-specific slowdowns or a rolling recession, it is important to use the data most applicable to your industry to track your performance and anticipate changing customer demand. For the manufacturing technology industry, the order data offered by USMTO provides the most timely and accurate data available to gauge your performance and keep informed about customer trends by industry, machine type, and geography. Should the present economic situation develop in a similar way to the 2016 manufacturing recession, USMTO will prove an invaluable tool to follow as the next act unfolds.If you build or sell manufacturing technologies, you are eligible to participate in USMTO and gain access to the monthly market data mentioned in this article. Additionally, if you already participate in one of the AMT benchmarking surveys and want to learn more about how we can pull insights from your data, we are only an email away.

To read the rest of the Economics Issue of MT Magazine, click here.

Christopher Chidzik
Principal Economist
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