Economic Update | What is Manufacturing Signaling about 2024?

submitted by
Uric Dufrene, Ph.D., Interim Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Sanders Chair in Business, Indiana University Southeast

One of the strongest sectors for Louisville Metro last year was manufacturing. Sector payrolls grew by 4.3% over the year, only second to mining, logging, and construction of 8.1%.  Even though manufacturing today makes up a smaller share of total jobs compared to 20 years ago, the importance of the sector remains.   We can often gauge overall growth prospects and economic trajectory based on what is happening in manufacturing.

Louisville manufacturing payrolls peaked at around 96,000 back in 1999. Manufacturing employment then began a gradual decline every year until 2009. That’s when employment was decimated by the Great Recession, plunging to a level of about 61,000. Since that time, manufacturing employment has been on the upswing, with the latest numbers being close to 90,000. Despite the strong recent gains in manufacturing employment, services employment makes up a larger percentage of total jobs compared to 1999. In 1999, 79% of jobs were services related. Today, that number stands at 83%. The largest sector is now education and health services, and employment in professional and business services trails manufacturing by only 1,000 jobs.  In 1999, professional and business services payrolls trailed manufacturing by more than 30,000.    

Nationwide, manufacturing did hit a soft patch last year.  While total payrolls grew by more than 2 million jobs over 2023, manufacturing was just about flat, adding only 14,000 jobs. The ISM Manufacturing Index, a survey measure of manufacturing activity, was under 50 for all of 2023.  An index under 50 signals contraction, and above 50 represents expansion. Nationally, 2023 was a year of manufacturing contraction, as evidenced by year-over-year declines in industrial production.   

Signs are emerging that the nationwide manufacturing chill may begin to warm up, providing further evidence of a recession miss.  The last ISM report came in much higher than expected, and just under 50.  The last national jobs report, which blew all consensus estimates out of the water, showed that manufacturing added 23,000 jobs, exceeding the total number of manufacturing jobs added over 2023. In the last three months, national manufacturing added 56,000 jobs.  The ISM new orders statistic, a survey measure of new orders, had the highest increase since 2020, and is now above 50, signifying growth in new orders. The customer inventories index plummeted to the lowest level since October 2022, suggesting that inventories may be thinning out, a sign of future production in the pipeline. Inventory measures like the inventory-to-sales ratio have remained flat for the past seven months, suggesting that inventories have not grown relative to the level of sales.    While that measure has increased from the pandemic low of 1.1, when inventories were quite scarce, a measure of 1.3 is a historically low number. The current labor market will continue to support consumer spending, and when you compare this to the current state of inventories, national manufacturing may begin to see a steady increase in payrolls. 

We should also expect the same for Indiana and Kentucky manufacturing. Indiana manufacturing saw a decline of 4,000 manufacturing jobs over 2023, and Kentucky was just about flat, adding 2,000 jobs. A good part of Indiana losses likely occurred due to the slowdown in RV manufacturing. The Elkhart-Goshen metropolitan region, the RV manufacturing powerhouse, saw jobs peak in 2022 and have declined since, shedding 8,000 jobs. Over a period of one year, Elkhart manufacturing saw a decline of 10,000 jobs.    

Manufacturing often leads to growth or contraction in the overall economy.  Last year’s expected recession never materialized but manufacturing stalled.  As we begin 2024, manufacturing is now showing signs of growth, adding to the soft-landing argument.  Along with last Friday’s blowout payrolls report, 2024 may be shaping up as another year of steady growth. 

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