WRAPUP 3-U.S. factory, wholesale price data flag economy's woes

Wed May 15, 2013 1:20pm EDT

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* U.S. factory output shrinks in April
    * New York state manufacturing activity contracts in May
    * Producer prices fall 0.7 percent in April
    * Wholesale price drop largest in three years

    By Lucia Mutikani
    WASHINGTON, May 15 (Reuters) - U.S. factory output dropped
in April and manufacturing activity in New York state contracted
this month, a sign that slowing global demand is weighing on the
economy.
    The anemic growth picture was highlighted by another report
on Wednesday showing the largest decline in wholesale prices in
three years. The data gives the Federal Reserve latitude to keep
priming the economy with an easy monetary policy.
    "The somewhat sluggish economic growth and limited inflation
are the equivalent of rocket fuel for the Fed," said Joel
Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland,
Pennsylvania.
    U.S. Treasury debt prices rose on the reports
and the dollar retreated from 4-1/2 year highs against the yen
 as investors fine-tuned their bets on Fed policy. Stocks
on Wall Street trended higher while gold prices 
fell to their lowest in nearly a month.
    Manufacturing production fell 0.4 percent last month after
declining 0.3 percent in March, the Fed said. That pushed 
overall industrial output down by 0.5 percent, more than
unwinding March's 0.3 percent advance. Economists had expected
industrial output to fall only 0.2 percent last month.
    The drop in factory output, which accounts for more than 70
percent of industrial production, was broad-based and in keeping
with data earlier this month that showed factory payrolls failed
to expand last month.
    Industrial capacity utilization, a measure of how fully the
nation's mines, factories and utilities are deploying their
resources, dropped sharply from a more than 4-1/2 year high.
    A recession in the euro zone and slower growth in China has
undercut demand for U.S. exports, taking some steam out of the
factory sector. A strengthening in the dollar against both the
euro and the yen has also hurt.
    At the same time, manufacturing has been hit hard by
belt-tightening in Washington, in particular $85 billion in
across the board spending cuts that kicked in on March 1. 
    Other areas of the economy such as employment, housing and
the retail sector have shown surprising resilience, which should
limit the degree to which the economy slows. Manufacturing
accounts for about 12 percent of U.S. GDP.
    "Manufacturing is struggling. The weakness in Europe's
economy and softening emerging markets is hurting U.S.
manufacturers more than the domestic economy," said Ryan Sweet,
a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester
Pennsylvania. "That's going to linger for sometime."
    Indeed, a second report showed manufacturing activity in New
York state fell in May as new orders, unfilled orders and
shipments of finished goods all declined.
    The New York Federal Reserve's "Empire State" general
business conditions index fell to minus 1.43 this month from
3.05 in April. A reading below zero indicates a contraction in
the region's factories. 
    
 
 
    INFLATION MUTED
    Economists said the weakness in manufacturing, one of the
main drivers of growth since the 2007-09 recession ended,
suggested the economy could slow to a 2 percent annual growth
pace in the second quarter. It expanded at a 2.5 percent rate in
the first three months of the year.
    With domestic demand lackluster, the euro zone economy mired
in a recession and growth in China slowing, disinflation is
creeping into the U.S. economy.
    The Labor Department said its producer price index fell 0.7
percent last month, the biggest decline since February 2010.
Wholesale prices had dropped 0.6 percent in March.
    In the 12 months through April, wholesale prices were up
only 0.6 percent, the smallest increase since July last year.
Prices had increased 1.1 percent in March.
    Underscoring the tame inflation environment, core wholesale
prices, which strip out volatile food and energy costs, nudged
up just 0.1 percent, the smallest gain since November. 
    With little sign of pipeline price pressures, consumer
inflation should remain low this year, providing scope for the
Fed to maintain its monthly $85 billion purchases of mortgage
and Treasury bonds to keep rates low and speed up job growth.
    "Inflation is too low, but not low enough to really get the
Fed to increase the size of its asset purchases," said Sweet.
    A measure of consumer inflation closely watched by the Fed
has slowed sharply since the start of the year. It now stands a
full percentage point below the Fed's 2 percent target. A core
measure is nearly as low. Data on Thursday is expected to show
the downward trend in consumer prices persisted in April.
    Last month, wholesale gasoline prices fell 6.0 percent after
dropping 6.8 percent in March. That led energy prices down by
2.5 percent in April, a decline that accounted for more than 80
percent of the overall drop in wholesale prices.
    Producer prices were also dampened by a 0.8 percent decline
in food prices, the largest fall since May 2011. Food prices
were held down by a collapse in the wholesales prices of
strawberries, eggs and fresh and dry vegetables.
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