U.S. manufacturing output accelerates in May on autos

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Production at U.S. factories increased more than expected in May as motor vehicle output rebounded, but shortages of raw materials and labor continue to cast a shadow over the manufacturing industry.

Manufacturing output accelerated 0.9% last month after dipping 0.1% in April, the Federal Reserve said on Tuesday.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast manufacturing output increasing 0.6% in May. Manufacturing, which accounts for 11.9% of the U.S. economy, is being underpinned by massive fiscal stimulus, low interest rates and continued strong demand for goods even as spending is shifting towards services amid a vastly improved public health situation.

But robust demand is straining the supply chain, with shortages of raw materials and labor across the industry.

The automobile industry has been hit by a global shortage of semiconductors, which has forced some automakers to cut production. Hyundai Motor USA said on Monday it would suspend production at its Montgomery plant in Alabama for a week because of the chip crunch and will “will continue to take necessary measures to optimize production.”

Volkswagen said last week it expected the supply squeeze to ease in the third quarter, though it saw the bottlenecks continuing in the long term.

That suggests the 6.7% increase in production at auto plants last month was likely temporary. Motor vehicle assemblies jumped about 1 million units to an annualized rate of 9.9 million units last month, but remained more than 1 million units below their average level in the second half of 2020.

Excluding autos, manufacturing output rose 0.5% last month.

The rebound in manufacturing output combined with a 1.2% increase in mining and a 0.2% gain in utilities to boost industrial production by 0.8% last month. That followed a 0.1% rise in April.

Capacity utilization for the manufacturing sector, a measure of how fully firms are using their resources, rose 0.7 percentage point to 75.6%. Overall capacity use for the industrial sector was up 0.6 percentage point to 75.2%. It is 4.4 percentage points below its 1972-2020 average.

Officials at the U.S. central bank tend to look at capacity use measures for signals of how much “slack” remains in the economy — how far growth has room to run before it becomes inflationary.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

‘AI’ to hit hardest in U.S. heartland and among less-skilled: study

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Midwestern states hit hardest by job automation in recent decades, places that were pivotal to U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, will be under the most pressure again as advances in artificial intelligence reshape the workplace, according to a new study by Brookings Institution researchers.

The spread of computer-driven technology into middle-wage jobs like trucking, construction, and office work, and some lower-skilled occupations like food preparation and service, will also further divide the fast-growing cities where skilled workers are moving and other areas, and separate the high- skilled workers whose jobs are less prone to automation from everyone else regardless of location, the study found.

But the pain may be most intense in a familiar group of manufacturing-heavy states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, whose support swung the U.S. electoral college for Trump, a Republican, and which have among the largest share of jobs, around 27 percent, at “high risk” of further automation in coming years.

At the other end, solidly Democratic coastal states like New York and Maryland had only about a fifth of jobs in the high-risk category.

The findings suggest the economic tensions that framed Trump’s election may well persist, and may even be immune to his efforts to shift global trade policy in favor of U.S. manufacturers.

“The first era of digital automation was one of traumatic change…with employment and wage gains coming only at the high and low ends,” authors including Brookings Metro Policy Program director Mark Muro wrote of the spread of computer technology and robotics that began in the 1980s. “That our forward-looking analysis projects more of the same…will not, therefore, be comforting.”

The study used prior research from the McKinsey Global Institute that looked at tasks performed in 800 occupations, and the proportion that could be automated by 2030 using current technology.

While some already-automated industries like manufacturing will continue needing less labor for a given level of output – the “automation potential” of production jobs remains nearly 80 percent – the spread of advanced techniques means more jobs will come under pressure as autonomous vehicles supplant drivers, and smart technology changes how waiters, carpenters and others do their jobs.

That would raise productivity – a net plus for the economy overall that could keep goods cheaper, raise demand, and thus help create more jobs even if the nature of those jobs changes.

But it may pose a challenge for lower-skilled workers in particular as automation spreads in food service and construction, industries that have been a fallback for many.

“This implies a shift in the composition of the low-wage workforce” toward jobs like personal care, with an automation potential of 34 percent, or building maintenance, with an automation potential of just 20 percent, the authors wrote.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. consumer confidence at 18-year high; house price gains slow

FILE PHOTO - A home for sale is seen in Santa Monica, California, U.S., March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer confidence rose to an 18-year high in October, driven largely by a robust labor market, bolstering expectations that strong economic growth would continue through early 2019.

But a weakening housing market and tightening financial market conditions are casting a shadow on the economic expansion that is in its ninth year, the second longest on record. Home price gains slowed further in August, other data showed, another sign that higher mortgage rates were weighing on housing demand.

“We don’t know how long this is going to hold up, but the consumer is bullish on the outlook and this means the economy is going to continue to advance in this long economic expansion from the last recession,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

The Conference Board said its consumer confidence index reading rose to 137.9 this month, the highest since September 2000, from a downwardly revised 135.3 in September. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the consumer index slipping to 136.0 from the previously reported 138.4 in September.

Consumers’ assessment of current business and labor market conditions improved despite a sharp stock market sell-off and jump in U.S. Treasury yields, which have tightened financial market conditions. The stock market’s S&P 500 index has dropped more than 8 percent this month.

The Conference Board survey puts more emphasis on the labor market. The survey’s so-called labor market differential, derived from data about respondents saying jobs are scarce or plentiful, was the most favorable since January 2001.

This measure closely correlates to the unemployment rate in the Labor Department’s employment report. Economists said it raised the possibility that the unemployment rate could drop further from a near 49-year low of 3.7 percent. The government will publish its October employment report on Friday.

“At the end of the day, it is the job market, or the security of having a job with a regular paycheck, that supports confidence and spending,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto. “So far, so good.”

Consumer confidence at multi-year highs bodes well for spending in the upcoming holiday season. More consumers planned to buy automobiles and houses over the next six months, but the share of those intending to purchase major appliances slipped.

The dollar was near a 2 1/2-month high against a basket of currencies, while stocks on Wall Street were higher. U.S. Treasury yields rose.

HOUSING DEMAND SOFTENING

The economy grew at a 3.5 percent annualized rate in the third quarter and is considered on course to achieve the Trump administration’s target of 3.0 percent annual growth this year.

Growth has been spurred by a $1.5 trillion tax cut. Economists estimate the tax cut stimulus peaked in the third quarter and expect growth to gradually slow from the second half of 2019, restrained in part by higher interest rates.

The Federal Reserve has increased borrowing costs three times this year and in September removed a reference to monetary policy remaining “accommodative” from its policy statement. The U.S. central bank is expected raise rates gain in December.

Higher borrowing costs have cooled housing demand; sales and homebuilding declined in September.

A separate report on Tuesday showed the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller composite home price index of 20 U.S. metropolitan areas rose 5.5 percent in August from a year ago after increasing 5.9 percent in July. Growth in house prices has slowed from as high as 6.8 percent in March. Prices had been boosted by a shortage of properties on the market, but now mortgage rates have risen to seven-year highs.

“The sharp gain in mortgage rates thus far in 2018 continues to weigh on home sales as well as home prices,” said Brent Campbell, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

“With the Fed continuing to tighten monetary policy through the rest of 2018 and into 2019, mortgage rates are likely to rise, even more, resulting in less housing demand and modest house price growth in 2019.”

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by David Gregorio)

Workers say Wal-Mart discriminated against thousands of pregnant women

A logo of Walmart is seen in one of the stores in Monterrey, Mexico

By Daniel Wiessner

(Reuters) – Two former Wal-Mart Stores Inc employees have filed a lawsuit accusing the retailer of treating thousands of pregnant workers as “second-class citizens” by rejecting their requests to limit heavy lifting, climbing on ladders and other potentially dangerous tasks.

The proposed class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Illinois on Friday by Talisa Borders and Otisha Woolbright, who say that until 2014, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart had a company-wide policy that denied pregnant women the same accommodations as workers with other disabilities.

The class could include at least 20,000 women and possibly up to 50,000 who worked at Wal-Mart while pregnant before the policy change, according to the lawsuit.

The company in a statement provided by spokesman Randy Hargrove denied the women’s claims and said Wal-Mart’s pregnancy policies “have always fully met or exceeded both state and federal law.” The company said a separate anti-discrimination policy it maintains has long listed pregnancy as a protected status.

“Walmart is a great place for women to work,” the company said.

Borders and Woolbright say that Wal-Mart’s old policy violated a federal law requiring employers to treat pregnancy as a temporary disability and provide work accommodations to pregnant women. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 2015 case involving United Parcel Service, said employers cannot treat pregnant workers differently from those with other disabilities or medical conditions.

Wal-Mart, the largest private U.S. employer, changed its policy in 2014 to treat pregnancy as a disability. But lawyers for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the changes did not go far enough, and they were planning a separate lawsuit involving the new policy.

Woolbright says her manager at a Florida Wal-Mart told her pregnancy was “no excuse” for not doing heavy lifting. She says she was fired from her job in the deli department after injuring herself lifting trays that weighed up to 50 pounds and inquiring further about the company’s pregnancy policies.

Borders, who worked at an Illinois Wal-Mart, says she was reprimanded for asking coworkers to climb ladders and lift heavy boxes while she was pregnant, and forced to go on unpaid leave. When she returned, she says, she was paid $2.00 less per hour.

The case is Borders v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, No. 3:17-cv-00506.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Dan Grebler and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. jobless claims rise to more than one-year high

Job Seekers at Colorado Hospital Job Fair

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, touching the highest level in more than a year, which could raise concerns about labor market health in the wake of the slowdown in job gains in April.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 294,000 for the week ended May 7, the highest level since late February 2015, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

Claims for the prior week were unrevised. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast initial claims slipping to 270,000 in the latest week.

Despite last week’s jump, claims remained below 300,000, a threshold associated with healthy job market conditions, for 62 consecutive weeks, the longest stretch since 1973.

A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors influencing last week’s claims data and no states had been estimated. There was a surge in claims in New York and Michigan in the latest week.

The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, increased 10,250 to 268,250 last week, the highest level in almost three months.

The claims report came on the heels of data last week showing nonfarm payrolls increased only 160,000 in April, the smallest gain in seven months, after advancing by 208,000 in March.

The labor market has been fairly robust despite a sharp slowdown in economic growth in the first quarter. The spike in jobless claims and moderation in employment gains likely do not suggest a deterioration given difficulties adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations.

A report on Tuesday showed job openings hit an eight-month high in March, with the rate re-testing its post-recession high.

Thursday’s claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 37,000 to 2.16 million in the week ended April 30.

The four-week average of the so-called continuing claims fell 3,750 to 2.14 million, the lowest reading since November 2000.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)