National manufacturing activity hasn't been particularly strong so far this year. It hasn't been particularly horrible mind you, but there hasn't been much to get excited about, either. Southeastern manufacturing activity—until recently—has been a different story. The Southeast purchasing managers index (PMI) and the Institute for Supply Management's national index both indicated that southeastern activity had been outpacing national activity in each of the first four months of 2015. I hate to throw cold water on the strong numbers, but according to the latest PMI report, released on June 5, that trend may be reversing.

The Atlanta Fed’s research department uses the PMI to track manufacturing activity in the Southeast. The survey, produced by the Econometric Center at Kennesaw State University, analyzes current market conditions for the manufacturing sector in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The PMI is based on a survey of representatives from manufacturing companies in those states and analyzes trends concerning new orders, production, employment, supplier delivery times, and inventory levels. A reading above 50 indicates that manufacturing activity is expanding, and a reading below 50 indicates contracting activity.

The Southeast PMI has averaged a 57.9 reading so far in 2015, compared with a 52.4 for the national index. However, the May Southeastern PMI's overall index fell 5.2 points from April to 52.4, clocking in below the national index for the first time in four months (see the chart).


The index remained above the 50 threshold for expansion, but the subindexes of the May report contained some disconcerting numbers:

  • The new orders subindex fell 11.0 points to 46.0.
  • The production subindex decreased 16.0 points compared with the previous month and now reads 49.0.
  • The employment subindex declined 1.0 to 60.0.
  • The supplier deliveries subindex increased 3.0 points to 56.0.
  • The finished inventory subindex decreased 1.0 points to 51.0.
  • The commodity prices subindex rose 9.0 points and now reads 54.0.

The 11-point fall in the new orders subindex was discouraging since it is the most forward-looking indicator of future activity. The new orders subindex has seen large one-month fluctuations in the past. For instance, it fell 27 points last December only to rebound 23.4 points the following month. So it could be a one-month aberration. Let's hope so. The 16-point fall in the production subindex was also an abnormally large fall, but—like new orders—it has happened before. Optimism for future production also decreased from April to May. When asked for their production expectations during the next three to six months, only 38 percent of survey participants expected production to be higher going forward, compared with 46 percent in April. The good news is that the employment subindex registered a strong reading, which is a good indication that manufacturers are still adding to their payrolls. So even though production outlooks have come down, firms still seem to expect that they will need employees to work more hours in the future, which could be a good sign for employment.

We should remember that the overall index still indicated expansion in manufacturing. Hopefully, as the summer heats up, so will manufacturing activity. I hate to throw cold water on our hot streak, but this time of year, a little cold water can feel good.

By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch