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U.S. manufacturing sinks to decade low, stoking economic fear

California steel in Fontana
Electricians at the California Steel factory in Fontana.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

U.S. factory activity hit a decade low last month in the face of President Trump’s trade conflicts, adding to a weakening picture of the global economy.

The Institute for Supply Management, an association of purchasing managers, said Tuesday that its manufacturing index shrank for a second straight month, to 47.8 in September, down from 49.1 in August. Any reading below 50 signals that the sector is contracting.

Investors on Wall Street responded by dumping stocks, given that the slowdown in manufacturing fanned fears that growth might be slowing more than expected and could squeeze corporate earnings.

Trump’s nearly 15-month trade war with China and his tariffs on steel, aluminum and other products were intended to help U.S. manufacturers. But his confrontational trade policies have had the opposite effect and helped spur the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates in September for a second time this year.

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Weakening business confidence and softening global demand have hit American factories hard, prompting pullbacks in production and employment. This month’s ISM measure reported the lowest level of manufacturing activity since June 2009, the last month of the Great Recession.

Manufacturing makes up only about a tenth of the U.S. economy, but analysts see the survey as a warning sign about the trade conflict. Because the latest round of Trump tariffs on Chinese imports affects many consumer goods, economists say, weakening business sentiment could spill over to slow consumer spending, which supports the bulk of the U.S. economy.

Fotios Raptis, a senior economist at TD Economics, suggested that the U.S. economy could be headed for a downturn if the manufacturing index dropped even lower. And given factory declines overseas as well, the global economy is also at rising risk.

“The U.S. economy is at the precipice of an economywide contraction in output,” Raptis said.

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The World Trade Organization said Tuesday that it expects volumes of traded goods to rise 1.2% this year, its weakest pace since 2009.

In addition, surveys of purchasing firms compiled by the data firm IHS Markit point toward declines in manufacturing in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia, all of them export-reliant countries. The British factory sector has also remained in negative terrain for five consecutive months, its longest stretch since the financial crisis.

On Twitter, Trump kept up his steady attacks on the Fed, which he has regularly criticized for not reducing rates more aggressively. But the ISM report suggests that Trump’s tariffs, and other nations’ retaliatory tariffs, have played a far greater role than the Fed in dampening manufacturing activity.

Timothy Fiore, head of ISM’s Manufacturing Business Survey Committee, pointed to the 2.3-percentage-point drop in a measure of new export orders, its lowest level since March 2009. The ISM survey also includes comments from its members, and three of the 10 manufacturers quoted said the tariffs are hurting their business. None blamed a strong dollar or the Fed. Most economists also point to the trade fight for manufacturers’ problems.

“Simmering trade tension is the obvious culprit for the manufacturing weakness,” said Eric Winograd, senior U.S. economist at AllianceBernstein.

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