- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003


America’s manufacturers saw demand for their products fall in April by the largest amount in seven months, a new blow to an industry that is a big drag on the plodding economy.

Orders to U.S. factories for durable goods — manufactured products such as cars and appliances expected to last at least three years — dropped by 2.4 percent in April from the previous month.

The Commerce Department’s report yesterday underscored the troubles facing battered manufacturers, which have suffered through 33 consecutive months of jobs losses and are operating plants well below capacity because of the muddled economic environment.

“There will be no quick turnaround in the goods-producing part of the economy,” said economist Thomas Duesterberg, president of the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, a research group.

April’s decline in orders was deeper than the 1 percent decrease economists were expecting and marked the largest drop since last September.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in an appearance on Capitol Hill last week, called recent production figures for big industry weak. Businesses remain cautious and are wary of making big spending and hiring commitments, he said. That is a major factor restraining the economy’s recovery.

Also yesterday, the department announced that data on shipments of semiconductors will again be included in the monthly durable-goods report under an agreement with the semiconductor industry.

The information on shipments — filled orders moving out of factories — will start showing up again in the durable-goods report for July, which will be released on Aug. 26.

However, data on new orders placed to factories for semiconductors will continue to be absent from the report. Orders, shipments and other information on semiconductors had been dropped from the reports when some major companies stopped supplying it to the government. The information had been provided on a voluntary basis.

In yesterday’s report, orders for transportation equipment fell 5.4 percent in April, following a 2.1 percent rise.

Excluding transportation orders, which can swing widely from month to month, durable-goods orders went down by 1.2 percent in April, the second decrease in three months.

Orders for automobiles in April fell 3 percent, on top of a 1.6 percent decline in March.

For electrical equipment and appliances, orders declined by 3.6 percent in April, more than wiping out March’s 3.5 percent gain. Orders for communications equipment fell 5.1 percent, after dipping 0.1 percent in March.

For machinery, orders declined 3.7 percent, reversing much of March’s 3.9 percent advance.

“The civilian economy shut down during the month,” said John Silvia, Wachovia’s chief economist.

In a bright spot, orders for computers jumped by 15.3 percent in April after slipping by 0.3 percent in March.

Some economists believe the Federal Reserve may cut short-term interest rates, now at a 41-year low, at its next meeting on June 24-25 in a bid to energize the economy and ward off the possibility that deflation — a widespread and prolonged decline in prices — could erupt in the United States.

Mr. Greenspan and his colleagues say the chance of deflation cropping up is remote, but it is so serious and dangerous that policy-makers must be on guard.

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