U.S. factory activity slows as COVID-19 infections accelerate

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. manufacturing activity slowed in November, with new orders retreating from their highest level in nearly 17 years, as a resurgence in COVID-19 cases across the nation kept workers at home and factories temporarily shut down to sanitize facilities.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) on Tuesday warned that absenteeism at factories and their suppliers as well as difficulties in returning and hiring workers would continue to “dampen” manufacturing until the coronavirus crisis ended.

The softening in factory activity supports expectations for a sharp deceleration in economic growth in the fourth quarter.

“The feared economic slowdown is starting, but it is pretty slow off the blocks,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economics in Holland, Pennsylvania.

The ISM’s index of national factory activity dropped to a reading of 57.5 last month from 59.3 in October, which had been the highest since November 2018. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for 11.3% of the U.S. economy.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index would slip to 58 in November. Sixteen manufacturing industries, including wood products, machinery and transportation equipment, reported growth last month. Petroleum and coal products, as well as printing and related support activities industries, contracted.

The United States is in the grip of a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections, with more than 4 million new cases and over 35,000 coronavirus-related deaths reported in November, according to a Reuters tally of official data. The virus is likely to disrupt production at factories. Manufacturing output is still about 5% below its pre-pandemic level, according to the Federal Reserve.

Coronavirus infections are exploding at a time when more than $3 trillion in government COVID-19 relief has run out. The fiscal stimulus helped millions of unemployed Americans cover daily expenses and companies keep workers on payrolls, leading to record economic growth in the third quarter.

Slowing manufacturing activity followed on the heels of data last week showing consumer spending cooling in October.

The economy grew at a historic 33.1% annualized rate in the third quarter after contracting at a 31.4% rate in the April-June period, the deepest since the government started keeping records in 1947. Growth estimates for the fourth quarter are mostly below a 5% rate.

A second report from the Commerce Department on Tuesday showed a solid increase in construction spending in October, but outlays in September actually declined instead of rising modestly as was previously estimated.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher, with the S&P 500 index and the Nasdaq hitting record highs on hopes that a COVID-19 vaccine would be available soon. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

MIXED VIEWS

“Rising COVID-19 cases in the U.S and the absence of additional fiscal stimulus could weigh on factory conditions over the next couple of months,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Manufacturers last month offered mixed assessments of business conditions. Transportation equipment makers said the flare-up in COVID-19 cases was straining suppliers, with labor the main issue, impacting production.

In the food industry, factories were “sending employees home for 14 days to quarantine,” and “had to shut down production lines due to lack of staffing.” But fabricated metal producers reported strong business and they expected demand to continue growing in 2021. Machinery manufacturers were also upbeat, though they said the coronavirus remained a concern.

ISM’s forward-looking new orders sub-index fell to a reading of 65.1 in November from 67.9 in October, which was the highest reading since January 2004. Manufacturing employment contracted after expanding in October for the first time since July 2019.

ISM’s manufacturing employment gauge dropped to a reading of 48.4 from 53.2 in October. That likely reflects the absenteeism due to the coronavirus as well as layoffs as demand softens. It fits in with economists’ expectations that job growth slowed further in November. Manufacturing accounts for more than 10% of private payroll employment.

“Today’s news of layoffs in the sector, either planned or unplanned, is a worrisome sign that shows there is not a clear path to winning here for the economic outlook as 2021 approaches,” Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

About 12.1 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April have been recovered. The government is scheduled to publish November’s employment report on Friday.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)

Persistently high U.S. weekly jobless claims point to labor market scarring

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits rose to a two-month high last week, stoking fears the COVID-19 pandemic was inflicting lasting damage to the labor market.

The weekly unemployment claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also showed at least 25 million were on jobless benefits at the end of September. It reinforced views the economy’s recovery from the recession, which started in February, was slowing and in urgent need of another government rescue package.

The economic hardship wrought by the coronavirus crisis is a major hurdle to President Donald Trump’s chances of getting a second term in the White House when Americans go to the polls on Nov. 3. Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s candidate, has blamed the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic for the worst economic turmoil in at least 73 years.

“The increase in initial claims is disturbing,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN in New York. “It is difficult to see it and not think the recovery is vulnerable.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 53,000 to a seasonally adjusted 898,000 for the week ended Oct. 10. Data for the prior week was revised to show 5,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 825,000 applications in the latest week. The surprise increase came even as California processed no claims. California, the most populous state in the nation, suspended the processing of new applications for two weeks in late September to combat fraud. It resumed accepting claims last Monday.

Unadjusted claims rose 76,670 to 885,885 last week. Economists prefer the unadjusted number given earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations because of the economic shock caused by the pandemic. Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs, 1.3 million people filed claims last week.

Seven months into the pandemic in the United States, first-time claims remain well above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession, though below a record 6.867 million in March. With new COVID-19 cases surging across the country and the White House and Congress struggling to agree on another rescue package for businesses and the unemployed, claims are likely to remain elevated.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday he would keep trying to reach a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, before next month’s election.

Stocks on Wall Street were lower. The dollar gained versus a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

MILLIONS EXHAUST BENEFITS

About 3.8 million people had permanently lost their jobs in September, with another 2.4 million unemployed for more than six months. Economists fear those numbers could swell.

Though the claims report showed a decline in the number of people on unemployment rolls in early October, economists said that was because many people had exhausted their eligibility for benefits, which are limited to six months in most states.

The number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid declined 1.165 million to 10.018 million in the week ending Oct. 3.

About 2.8 million workers filed for extended unemployment benefits in the week ending Sept. 26, up 818,054 from the prior week. That was the largest weekly gain since the program’s launch last spring. These benefits are set to expire on Dec. 31.

Tens of thousands of airline workers have been furloughed. State and local government budgets have been crushed by the pandemic, leading to layoffs that are expected to escalate without help from the federal government.

“Risks to the labor market outlook are weighted heavily to the downside,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “The increased spread of the virus across much of the country could result in an even larger pullback in business activity than expected.”

Though economic activity rebounded in the third quarter because of fiscal stimulus, the stubbornly high jobless claims suggest momentum ebbed heading into the fourth quarter.

Other reports on Thursday showed mixed fortunes for regional manufacturing in October. A survey from the New York Federal Reserve showed its business conditions index fell seven points to a reading of 10.5 this month. Companies reported continued gains in new orders and shipments, though unfilled orders maintained their decline. Factory employment rose modestly, but the average workweek increased significantly.

Separately, the Philadelphia Fed said its business conditions index jumped to a reading of 32.3 from 15.0 in September. Measures of new orders and shipments at factories in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware rose. A gauge of factory employment fell, but manufacturers increased hours for workers.

Third-quarter GDP growth estimates are topping a 32% annualized rate. The economy contracted at a 31.4% pace in the second quarter, the deepest decline since the government started keeping records in 1947. Growth estimates for the fourth quarter have been cut to as low as a 2.5% rate from above a 10% pace.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Companies may be punished for paying ransoms to sanctioned hackers – U.S. Treasury

By Raphael Satter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facilitating ransomware payments to sanctioned hackers may be illegal, the U.S. Treasury said on Thursday, signaling a crackdown on the fast-growing market for consultants who help organizations pay off cybercriminals.

In a pair of advisories, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network warned that facilitators could be prosecuted even if they or the victims did not know that the hackers demanding the ransom were subject to U.S. sanctions.

Ransomware works by encrypting computers, holding a company’s data hostage until a payment is made. Organizations have often ponied up ransoms to liberate their data.

“It is a game changer,” said Alon Gal, chief technology officer of Hudson Rock, which works to head off ransomware attacks before they happen.

Before, companies could decide whether or not to pay cybercriminals off, he said. Now that those decisions are being brought under government oversight “we are going to see a much tougher handling of these incidents.”

The Enforcement Network’s advisory also warned that cybersecurity firms may need to register as money services businesses if they help make ransomware payments. That would impose a new reporting requirement on a previously little-regulated corner of the cybersecurity industry.

Ransomware has become an increasingly visible threat in the United States and abroad. Cybercriminals have long used the software to loot their victims. Some countries, notably North Korea, are also accused of deploying ransomware to earn cash.

(Reporting by Raphael Satter; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Chang)

U.S. labor market slowing as fiscal stimulus fades

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly increased last week, supporting views the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was running out of steam amid diminishing government funding.

The weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also showed 26 million people were on unemployment benefits in early September. The faltering labor market recovery and a recent rise in new coronavirus infections has piled pressure on Congress and the White House to come up with another rescue package.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers on Wednesday that Congress and the U.S. central bank needed to “stay with it” in working to support the economy’s recovery. More fiscal stimulus is looking increasingly unlikely before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“The high level of joblessness shows that the country isn’t out of the woods yet and it won’t be if the pleading of Fed officials for more stimulus isn’t heard by government officials down in Washington,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “The economy is running on empty.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 870,000 for the week ended Sept. 19. Data for the prior week was revised to show 6,000 more applications received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 840,000 applications in the latest week.

Unadjusted claims increased 28,527 to 824,542 last week. Economists prefer the unadjusted claims number given earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations because of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Six months after the pandemic started in the United States, jobless claims remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession, though applications have dropped from a record 6.867 million at the end of March.

While the reopening of businesses in May boosted activity, demand in the vast services industries has remained lackluster, keeping layoffs elevated. Job cuts have also spread to industries such as financial services and technology that were not initially impacted by the mandated business closures in mid-March because of insufficient demand.

A total 630,080 applications were received for the government-funded pandemic unemployment assistance last week. The PUA is for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs. Altogether, 1.5 million people filed claims last week.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower. The dollar gained versus a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

STALLED PROGRESS

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 167,000 to 12.58 million in the week ending Sept. 12.

Economists believed the so-called continuing claims are declining as people exhaust their eligibility for benefits, which are limited to 26 weeks in most states.

Indeed, just under one million workers exhausted their first six months of state unemployment benefits in August. At least 1.6 million workers filed for extended unemployment benefits in the week ending Sept. 5, up 104,479 from the prior week.

The continuing claims data covered the period during which the government surveyed households for September’s unemployment rate. The decline in mid-September implied a further decrease in the unemployment rate from 8.4% in August.

“Only faster progress against the virus itself will assuage the unemployment struggles of so many workers in fields like entertainment who can’t return to their jobs until social distancing restrictions are relaxed ,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York.

The Fed has cut interest rates to near zero and vowed to keep borrowing costs low for a while, and has also been pumping money into the economy. Government money to help businesses has virtually dried up. Tens of thousands of airline workers are facing layoffs or furloughs next month.

A $600 weekly unemployment benefits supplement ended in July and was replaced with a $300 weekly subsidy, whose funding is already running out. The death toll from COVID-19 in the country topped 200,000 on Tuesday, the highest number of any nation.

The ebbing fiscal stimulus is already restraining the economy after activity rebounded sharply over the summer. Gross domestic product is expected to rebound at as much as a record 32% annualized rate in the third quarter after tumbling at a 31.7% rate in the April-June period, the worst performance since the government started keeping records in 1947.

But retail sales and production at factories moderated in August. Business activity cooled in September, reports have shown. Goldman Sachs on Wednesday cut its fourth-quarter GDP growth estimate to a 3% rate from a 6% pace, citing “lack of further fiscal support.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. weekly jobless claims remain perched at higher levels; housing marches on

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell less than expected last week and applications for the prior period were revised up, suggesting the labor market recovery had shifted into low gear amid fading fiscal stimulus.

The weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also showed nearly 30 million people were on unemployment benefits at the end of August.

Signs the labor market was stalling came a day after the Federal Reserve vowed to kept interest rates near zero for a long time. The U.S. central bank noted that the COVID-19 pandemic “will continue to weigh on economic activity” in the near term and “poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said more fiscal support was likely to be needed for the economy.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 33,000 to a seasonally adjusted 860,000 for the week ended Sept. 12. Data for the prior week was revised to show 9,000 more applications received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 850,000 applications in the latest week.

Un-adjusted claims dropped 75,974 to 790,021 last week. Economists prefer the un-adjusted claims number given earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations because of the economic shock inflected by the coronavirus crisis. Despite last week’s big drop in un-adjusted claims, they remain extraordinarily high.

A total 658,737 applications were received for the government-funded pandemic unemployment assistance last week. The PUA is for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs. Altogether, 1.45 million people filed claims last week.

The claims data added to reports this week showing a slowdown in retail sales and production at factories in August.

U.S. stocks opened lower. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

STALL SPEED

After declining from a record 6.867 million at the end of March as businesses reopened after being shuttered to stem the spread of the coronavirus, claims have flattened, with layoffs spilling over to industries that were not initially impacted by the mandated closures.

A program to help businesses with wages expired in August, while $25 billion in government assistance for airlines’ payroll expires this month. Last week’s claims covered the period during which the government surveyed businesses for the non-farm payrolls component of September’s employment report.

The economy created 1.371 million jobs in August after adding 1.734 million in July. About 10.6 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost at the depth of the coronavirus crisis have been recovered.

While other sectors of the economy are losing steam, the housing market continues to power ahead, thanks to record-low interest rates and a migration to suburbs and low-density areas, spawned by the pandemic. Unemployment has disproportionately affected low-wage workers, who are typically renters.

A separate report from the Commerce Department on Thursday showed singe-family home building, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, increased 4.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.021 million units in August.

Further gains are likely, with building permits for single-family housing units accelerating 6.0% to a rate of 1.036 million units. A 22.7% tumble in starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment, however, led to a 5.1% drop in overall home building to a rate of 1.416 million units last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. Treasury to sell $112 billion next week, continue shift to longer-dated debt

By Ross Kerber

BOSTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department said on Wednesday it will sell $112 billion next week in notes and bonds and that it plans to continue to shift more of its funding to longer-dated debt in coming quarters, as it finances measures to offset the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The Treasury said it expects its debt needs to moderate but remain elevated, after borrowing a staggering $2.753 trillion in the second quarter.

“Treasury continues to face unprecedented borrowing needs as a result of the federal response to COVID-19,” Brian Smith, Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for federal finance, said on a conference call.

The Treasury will sell $48 billion in three-year notes, $38 billion in 10-year notes and $26 billion in 30-year bonds next week as part of its quarterly refunding.

It said on Monday that it plans to borrow $947 billion in the third quarter, about $270 billion more than it previously estimated for the July-September period.

The federal agency will use “long-term issuance as a prudent means of managing its maturity profile and limiting potential future issuance volatility,” Smith said in a release.

As Treasury increases auction sizes, it will have larger increases in 7-year, 10-year, 20-year and 30-year notes and bonds, he said.

Treasury has been raising extra money to fund trillions of dollars in coronavirus-related economic aid allocated by Washington. As of Tuesday, White House negotiators were trying to reach a deal with congressional Democrats to extend relief measures including unemployment benefits, liability protections for businesses and a moratorium on evictions.

Borrowing has spiked far above the quarterly record set during the 2008 financial crisis.

A declining economic outlook has driven down U.S Treasury yields across the curve to record or near-record lows, helping raise equity prices and lower borrowing costs.

(Additional reporting by Karen Brettell in New York; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. Treasury to make recommendation on TikTok to Trump this week: Mnuchin

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Wednesday that popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok was under a national security review and that his agency would make a recommendation to the president on the app this week.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which reviews deals by foreign acquirers for potential national security risks and is led by Treasury, is looking at TikTok, Mnuchin told reporters at the White House.

The committee has the power to force companies to unwind deals or put in place measures to protect U.S. national security.

“TikTok is under CFIUS review. We will be making a recommendation to the president this week so we have lots of alternatives,” he said.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Flanked by Mnuchin, Trump said before leaving the White House on a trip to Texas that “we are thinking about making a decision” about the company, owned by China’s Beijing Bytedance.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chris Reese and Bernadette Baum)

U.S. Treasury chief sees ‘significant amount’ for schools in next coronavirus aid bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday that he expects the next coronavirus aid bill to provide a “significant amount of money” to help U.S. K-12 schools to reopen safely.

Mnuchin made the comment during a U.S. House of Representatives Small Business Committee hearing at which he also said more funding was needed to help businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, such as travel related industries.

The Trump administration has been pushing for schools to reopen in the fall, which would allow many parents to return to work and help revive the economy.

(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Chris Reese)

Treasury’s Mnuchin open to blanket forgiveness for smaller business relief loans

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Friday policymakers should consider blanket forgiveness for all smaller businesses that received “Paycheck Protection Program” loans.

Mnuchin told lawmakers that they should consider such an approach to reduce complexity, coupled with some form of fraud protection.

He also said the Trump administration supports adding more funds to the $660 billion program, as well as allowing especially hard-hit businesses to apply for a second emergency loan.

He did not define how small a loan would have to be to qualify for automatic forgiveness, and added it should be paired with some form of fraud protection without going into detail. Several business and banking groups have pushed for blanket forgiveness for all loans under $150,000, arguing the requirements for applying for forgiveness under the program are too complex.

His comments come as Congress is preparing further economic relief legislation to support businesses and people harmed by pandemic lockdowns. Roughly $100 billion remains in the PPP, a forgivable loan program created by the initial stimulus package, is set to expire on Aug. 8.

Mnuchin added that he would also support applying some sort of “revenue test” to future PPP loans to make sure the remaining funds go to businesses that need it the most. The PPP has come under criticism after wealthy and larger companies secured loans under the program, which was billed as relief for small businesses.

“This time, we need to have a revenue test and make sure that money is going to businesses that have significant revenue declines,” he said.

He also said he would support efforts to set aside a portion of remaining PPP funds for minority-owned businesses, amid concerns from some lawmakers that those businesses were struggling to secure funding.

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

U.S. Treasury’s Mnuchin says Trump eyeing restaurant tax changes, travel boost

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday said bipartisan discussions are underway over whether more U.S. government relief funding is needed amid the nation’s novel coronavirus outbreak, but that President Donald Trump is focused on taxes and travel.

In an interview on Fox Business Network, Mnuchin said the Trump administration was prepared to back additional coronavirus stimulus money for American businesses if needed, but that right now it was carefully monitoring the economy as some states restart activity.

Mnuchin said Trump wanted tax changes to make businesses’ entertainment expenses “fully tax deductible like it used to be … to get people to go back to restaurants.”

“The president’s also looking about ways to stimulate travel,” he added. “As the economy opens up, I think you’ll see demand coming back,” for domestic travel, he said, although it’s “too hard to tell” if international travel could open up later in 2020.

Congress has already passed several major coronavirus relief bills worth nearly $3 trillion during the pandemic, but Democratic lawmakers and both Republican and Democratic governors have called for billions more to help shore up local governments battered by the outbreak as they grapple with infections and historic waves of unemployment.

“We’ve put $3 trillion out, if we need to put more money out to support American business and American workers, the president’s absolutely prepared to do that,” Mnuchin said. “We’re also going to take into account what the economic impact is as we open up the economy.”

“We’re beginning to have conversations on a bipartisan basis, we’re going through the issues, we’re going to have very detailed discussions,” he added, when asked if June could be a target for the next wave of federal aid from Congress.

On Sunday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said he would not rule out anything in a new relief bill, including more money for state and local governments and small businesses.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; additional reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)