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Capacity utilization is a bellwether of economic activity
Capacity utilization is a good top-down macroeconomic indicator, which helps forecast the labor market, final demand, consumption, and inflation. While manufacturing is no longer the primary driver of the U.S. economy, it still influences the economy to a large degree—particularly for unskilled workers. U.S. manufacturing has been undergoing a bit of a renaissance lately due to cheap energy prices. While there’s still a difference between wages overseas and here, low natural gas prices are offsetting that difference. Also, as wages rise overseas, the cheap labor arbitrage (taking advantage of lower wages) is fading away. The Fukushima nuclear disaster also showed how elongated supply chains are vulnerable.
Increases in capacity utilization generally signal increases in employment and capital expenditures. Lower-skilled workers have struggled since the financial crisis, which has dampened aggregate demand and consumption. Things are finally starting to improve, as construction jobs rebound and more companies are starting to move towards onshore production. Increased capital expenditures are a big economic driver as well. Corporations have been in maintenance capital expenditure mode for a long time.
Capacity utilization rates are approaching long-term historical averages
Capacity utilization was 79% in November—which is the highest level since the summer of 2008. Capacity utilization has been rising steadily since the economy bottomed in 2009. Over the past year, it has risen by 60 basis points.
From 1972 to 2012, capacity utilization has averaged 80.2%. It was highest in the early 1970s, peaking at around 89%. It bottomed at 66.9% in 2009. This suggests that there’s a lot of room for production to expand before we start having inflationary pressures. High capacity utilization levels in the 1970s were a big cause of inflation.
Impact on mortgage REITs
In spite of the weaker capacity utilization numbers, bonds sold off heavily on the initial jobless report. So far, it appears the bond market is watching employment-related indicators and ignoring everything else.
Industrial production and capacity utilization are numbers that get a lot of focus at the Fed. They not only help forecast economic activity, but also are important inputs into inflation. Once the Fed believes inflation is too low, eventually that will change. The Fed certainly will be happy to see capacity utilization approaching long-term historical averages.
While inflation is completely under control, the Fed will take capacity utilization into account when formulating policy. Right now, the only economic statistic that really matters is unemployment—everything else is secondary. While quantitative easing’s days are numbered, low short-term interest rates will be here for at least another year or two.
For the mortgage REITs, such as American Capital (AGNC), Annaly (NLY), Chimera (CIM), Two Harbors (TWO), and Capstead (CMO), that means low financing costs and low returns, necessitating leverage. Unfortunately for the REITs, the prospect of ending quantitative easing has raised long-term rates, which has caused mark-to-market losses on their portfolios of mortgage-backed securities. Since rates started increasing, the mortgage REIT sector has underperformed the market.
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