June 15, 2012 / 1:26 PM / in 6 years

Factory output falls second time in three months

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Manufacturing output contracted in May for the second time in three months and a gauge of factory activity in New York state plunged this month, worrisome signs the American economy is cooling.

Factory production shrank 0.4 percent last month, the Federal Reserve said on Friday. Total industrial output, covering factories, mines and utilities, declined 0.1 percent.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected industrial production to rise 0.1 percent.

The slackening U.S. recovery and a worsening debt crisis in Europe have increased expectations of a further easing of monetary policy by the Fed, although economists are divided on whether the central bank will act when it meets on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hiring by U.S. employers has slowed for four straight months, while retail sales contracted in May and new applications for jobless benefits have risen for five of the last six weeks.

In a sign factory sector weakness could extend into June, the New York Federal Reserve Bank’s “Empire State” index fell to 2.3, a 15-point drop from the month before and the lowest level since November 2011. That was far below economists’ expectations of 13, although the level still points to some growth.

“That is another indication that the U.S. economy is slowing,” said Justin Hoogendoorn, a fixed income strategist at BMO Capital Markets in Chicago. “It’s an ugly situation.”

U.S. stock indexes opened higher on Friday as optimism over possible coordinated action by major world central banks if Sunday’s Greek vote causes financial turmoil offset disappointment over the factory data.

Europe’s snowballing debt crisis threatens to send the global economy into recession.

Within the Fed’s report on U.S. industry in May, the softness in the factory sector was widespread. Output for durable - or long-lasting - goods dropped 0.5 percent as auto production slid 1.5 percent. Production for nondurables fell 0.2 percent.

Utilities output increased 0.8 percent, while mining was up 0.9 percent.

Capacity utilization, a measure of how fully firms are using their resources, slipped to 79.0 percent in May from 79.2 in the prior month.

Officials at the Fed tend to look at utilization measures as a signal of how much “slack” remains in the economy - how far growth has room to run before it becomes inflationary.

Additional reporting by Richard Leong in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman

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