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Practical Economics

U.S. Manufacturers on a Roll

Cheap energy and an improving economy will keep manufacturing growing at a better-than-average rate.

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For American manufacturing, 2015 promises to be another good year, once again modestly improving on the performance of the economy as a whole, with annual growth of about 3.5%, the same as this year. After a decades-long slide in share of GDP, manufacturing’s share of the economy has leveled off at about 12%. Automation, of course, will continue to pare its share of U.S. jobs (currently 9%) even as factories increase production. Meanwhile, the number of manufacturing plants appears to be holding steady at around 304,000, and annual output has pushed past its prerecession peak in 2007 when measured in real-dollar terms, after wringing out inflation.

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A pickup in construction spells good news for a variety of industries. Wood products, concrete, glass and structural metals should all be up about 6% in 2015. Cement, about half that. More homes and buildings mean more demand for heating and cooling systems plus a healthy 7% gain for furniture and for household appliances.

It’s cheap energy that will work the magic for the chemical industry. Thanks to it, the U.S. is now a lower-cost producer than both Europe and Japan. Output of methanol and ethylene, key feedstocks for polymers and plastics, will jump, with a similar lift for nitrogen-based fertilizer. For all U.S.-made chemicals, about a 6% increase in output is in the cards. Indeed, over 200 investment projects to expand chemical production are in the works. Many won’t be complete until 2017, so further growth is likely for some time to come.

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There’s a transportation equipment industry boomlet in the works as well, spurred by both the improving overall economy and years of deferring replacements. Expect a 9% jump in production of heavy trucks; 7% for output of ships and barges. With demand soaring for rail transportation of chemicals, shale oil and fuels, figure on double-digit growth for makers of railroad equipment -- tankers and other cars, of course, but locomotives, too. That’s in part because new federal fuel emissions rules kick in next year, requiring changes. Aircraft makers are also in a sweet spot: Boeing has a 10-year backlog of orders. Car and light truck manufacturers will see more growth, though slower than in 2013 and 2014. Engine makers will benefit, and producers of aluminum will gain from Ford’s conversion of its new F-150 trucks to the lighter-weight material. Turbine makers will get a similar boost from greater oil and gas pipeline construction and use arising from the fracking boom.

Look for healthy gains for manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and a range of machinery, too, as cash-rich corporations replace their aging gear. Instruments and controls, such as meters and testing equipment, and medical devices will do well. Semiconductor output will ramp up as Intel completes its transition to yet another generation of smaller chips. And new biologic drugs will deliver a boost to the pharmaceutical industry.

Other industries are likely to see more-modest growth in 2015. The robust growth that U.S. steelmakers, for example, enjoyed over the past 12 months will ease production overcapacity in China, plus slowing global economic growth will probably hold gains in 2015 to a mere 2%. Producers of fabricated metals will follow in steel’s footprints.

Makers of oil field equipment are also likely to experience slowing growth tied to the decline in oil prices. Makers of mining equipment will likewise suffer from the excess supply of coal and iron ore. Nondurable items such as processed food, textiles, tobacco and paper will grow only 1% or 2% in 2015, and apparel is likely to decline once again.

Some U.S. industries aren’t headed for a happy place at all. Apparel manufacturing will continue to head to lower-cost countries. And while the printing trades enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in 2013 and 2014, that is not likely to continue, and future declines are expected.