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U.S. factory output rises at 0.8 per cent pace in February


March 15, 2013
By Christopher S. Rugaber

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A strong increase in auto output boosted U.S. factory production last month, the latest sign that manufacturing is helping drive economic growth after lagging for much of 2012.

Factory output rose a seasonally adjusted 0.8 per cent in February from January, after falling 0.3 per cent in the previous month, the Federal Reserve said Friday.

The biggest gain was in autos and auto parts, where production increased 3.6 per cent after falling 4.9 per cent in January. Car sales have risen steadily this year after reaching a five year high in 2012.

Overall industrial production, which includes mining and utilities, rose 0.7 per cent in February. That is the most in three months. Utility output jumped 1.6 per cent while mining output, which covers oil and gas drilling, fell 0.3 per cent, the third straight decline.

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The recovery in home construction and increased business investment in machinery and other goods are also boosting output. Production of construction supplies, which includes steel, cement and wood products, rose 1.5 per cent. That was the fourth straight solid gain.

Factories also cranked out more industrial machinery, appliances, and furniture.

“Growth has clearly picked up,” Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a note to clients. “This is another positive sign” for the economy in the January-March quarter.

O’Sullivan forecasts that growth will jump to a 3 per cent annual rate in the first quarter, after barely expanding in the final three months of last year.

Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse, said the healthy increase in output suggests manufacturers will need step up hiring in the months ahead. Factory job gains could rise to 20,000 a month, up from average gains of 13,000 in the past three months.

The report adds to recent signs that manufacturing is picking up.

A closely watched index of U.S. manufacturing activity increased in February for the third straight month. Big increases in new orders and production pushed the Institute for Supply Management’s index to its highest level in 20 months.

New car and truck sales rose 4 per cent in February from a year earlier to an annual pace of 15.4 million. That’s a big improvement from sales of only 10.4 million in 2009. It’s still short of the pre-recession peak of 17 million in 2005. Auto makers are expected to have boosted output last month to keep up with the sales.

—The Associated Press