Orders for US durable goods nearly flat in November, as weak global economy hits manufacturing

WASHINGTON – Factory orders for long-lasting goods such as autos, airplanes and electronics were flat in November, as the impact of a strong dollar and struggling global economy weigh on U.S. manufacturers.

Orders for durable goods were nearly unchanged in November after a 2.9 per cent increase in October, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Demand for autos, electronic products and fabricated metals accelerated last month, but their gains were offset by declines in machinery and non-defence aircraft. Orders for capital goods not including aircraft — a key proxy for business investment — fell 0.4 per cent.

Durable goods orders have tumbled 3.7 per cent year-to-date. Slow economic growth among major U.S. trading partners — including Europe, China and Japan — has caused the dollar to rise in value, making U.S. goods more expensive overseas and less competitive. Lower oil prices have also squeezed demand for pipelines and equipment by energy companies.

“The manufacturing sector still looks fairly weak — weaker than non-manufacturing, reflecting more exposure to declining exports, a plunge in oil-related investment and an inventory cycle” where wholesalers are reducing their stockpiles, said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

Much of this year’s decline in orders comes from a 36.9 per cent drop in the commercial aircraft category, along with waning demand for machinery and primary metals. Those losses have hurt factory hiring in recent months and cut into exports abroad.

The dollar has appreciated more than 11 per cent in the past 12 months against a basket of foreign currencies, according to the Federal Reserve. As the dollar strengthens, the prices for American-made goods are inflated and sales suffer overseas. This pressure led to weak manufacturing activity last month.

The Institute for Supply Management reported that its index of factory activity in November dropped to 48.6 from 50.1 in October. Any reading below 50 signals contraction and the index has tumbled below that critical level for the first time since November 2012.

Still, the broader U.S. economy has largely been insulated from the challenges confronting factories. Orders for motor vehicles and electronics have increased this in large part because of steady demand from domestic consumers. Unemployment has dipped to a healthy 5 per cent, prompting many Americans to buy more cars and meals at restaurants.

Overall consumer spending rose 0.3 per cent in November, the Commerce Department said Wednesday in a separate report. Those expenditures account for 70 per cent of all U.S. economic activity.