Tuesday July 3, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. manufacturing shrank in June for the first time in nearly three years, adding to signs that economic growth is weakening.

Production and exports declined, and the number of new orders plunged, according to a monthly report released Monday by the Institute for Supply Management.

The slowdown comes as U.S. employers have scaled back hiring, consumers have turned more cautious, Europe faces a recession and manufacturing has slowed in big countries like China.

"This is not good," said Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at BTIG, an institutional brokerage. Though the report "does not mean recession for the broader economy, it is still a terribly weak number."

The trade group of purchasing managers said its index of manufacturing activity fell to 49.7. That’s down from 53.5 in May. And it’s the lowest reading since July 2009, a month after the Great Recession officially ended. Readings below 50 indicate contraction.

Economists said the manufacturing figures were consistent with growth at an annual rate of 1.5 percent or less. That would be down from the January-March quarter’s already tepid annual pace of 1.9 percent.

"Our forecast that the U.S. will grow by around 2 percent this year is now looking a bit optimistic," said Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics.

Stocks fell sharply after the report was released at 10 a.m.


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But investors appeared to shake off the bad manufacturing news by the end of the day. The Dow Jones industrial average recovered most of its early losses to close down just 8.7 points at 12,871. And broader indexes ended the day up.

Most economists aren’t yet predicting another recession. Though the ISM report suggests manufacturing is contracting, it typically takes a sustained reading below 43 to signal the economy isn’t growing.

Still, U.S. manufacturing, which has helped drive growth since the recession ended, is faltering at a precarious time.

Americans have pulled back on spending, which drives roughly 70 percent of growth. Europe’s economy is likely in recession, which has hurt U.S. exports.

And China’s manufacturing sector grew in June at its slowest pace in seven months.

Manufacturing will likely stay weak for the next few months. The ISM’s gauge of new orders, a measure of future activity, plunged from 60.1 to 47.8. That’s the first time it has fallen below 50 since April 2009, when the economy was still in recession.