By Alex Kowalski
WASHINGTON - Business activity in the U.S. unexpectedly expanded in February at the fastest pace in almost a year, a sign the manufacturing industry is poised for growth.
The MNI Chicago Report business barometer rose to 56.8, the highest level since March, after a reading of 55.6 in January. Numbers greater than 50 signal expansion. The median forecast of 51 economists surveyed by Bloomberg was 54.
Manufacturing, which makes up about 12 percent of the U.S. economy, is regaining its footing after slipping in mid 2012 as overseas markets heal, companies spend more on equipment and automobile sales improve. Strength in the factory sector indicates producers are still seeing demand even amid higher taxes on consumers and signs that lawmakers in Washington won’t come to agreement on a budget deal.
“Things are pretty positive for manufacturing,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale in New York, who forecast the index would climb to 57. “Businesses feel much more comfortable about spending money, and also we had very little inventory building in manufacturing in the fourth quarter, so people have to rebuild stocks.”
Estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from 52.2 to 58. The index average 54.6 in 2012 and 62.8 in 2011.
Other reports today showed the economy eked out a gain in the fourth quarter and claims for jobless benefits dropped more than forecast last week.
Confidence among consumers improved last week to the highest level this year as the housing recovery and recent gains in stocks removed some of the sting from higher payroll taxes, other figures also showed today. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index climbed for a fourth straight week, reaching minus 32.8 in the period ended Feb. 24 from minus 33.4 in the prior period. The share of Americans with a positive view of the world’s largest economy matched the highest since March 2008.
Stocks held earlier gains after the reports. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index climbed 0.2 percent to 1,518.79 at 10:24 a.m. in New York.
The Chicago group’s gauge of new orders climbed to 60.2 in February, also the highest in almost a year, from 58.2 in January. A measure of employment decreased to 55.7 from 58, a seven-month high. The production index was little changed, easing to 60.2 from 60.9 in January, a 10-month high, today’s report showed.
Economists monitor the Chicago index and other regional reports for an early reading on the national manufacturing outlook. The Chicago group includes goods producers and service providers with operations in the U.S. and abroad, making the gauge a measure of overall growth.