Manufacturing activity in the United States contracted, unexpectedly, in August, according to the Institute for Supply Management’s manufacturing index released today, September 1. The index fell to 49.4 in August from 52.6 in July. That was the biggest drop in the index since January 2014 and was enough to push the index below the 50 level that separates contraction from expansion. The median forecast among economists surveyed by Bloomberg was for reading of 52.
The ISM manufacturing survey was negative across a big chunk of the manufacturing sector with 11 of 18 industries showing a contraction. Not only were current orders weak, falling for the first time in 2016, but order backlogs deteriorated for a second month, reaching the lowest level since January, and signaling further weakness ahead.
The survey results are far more negative than other recent indicators including this morning’s stronger than expected data on initial applications for unemployment and yesterday’s positive report on private sector job creation in August from ADP.
All this left investors and traders scratching their heads ahead of tomorrow’s report from the Department of Labor on the number of jobs created by the U.S. economy in August. Economists have been relatively optimistic about that report, expecting the economy to have created 180,000 net new jobs in August. If tomorrow’s report comes in at that level, then today’s ISM survey on manufacturing becomes a one-month outlier in a generally positive economic chart.
All this is important since the financial markets are trying to figure out if there is a real chance that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates at its September 21 meeting. A strong jobs number and other positive economic data are pretty much required for there to be even a slight chance of an interest rate increase this month.
Already a few economists were saying today that the contraction in manufacturing indicated by the ISM survey today had pretty much killed the slim chance of a rate increase in September. That’s probably an overstatement–the ISM survey is extremely impressionistic and is exactly the kind of indicator that can produce a misleading read in the short term.
Still the negative news was worrying to a market very focused on tomorrow’s jobs report and the prospects for Fed action, or not, on September 21.