The 2020 Mid-Year Economic Update_long

Is Hope on the Horizon for U.S. Economy, Wholesale Distribution?

Recent economic reports show upward momentum for the overall U.S. economy and the wholesale distribution industry in particular, but not all data points paint a rosy picture, indicating recovery will be a slog.
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The past week delivered some green shoots for the U.S. economy in general and wholesale distribution in particular, and while the industry hasn’t completely moved past COVID-19, it appears the worst of the pandemic could be in the rear-view.

Although more reports will be released in the coming days, a glance at a few data points – coupled with the general sense that business is returning to normal – has brought some relief.

First, the good news on a macro level.

U.S. construction spending during April 2020 was $1.3 trillion. While that number was down 2.9% from the revised March estimate of $1.4 trillion, it also marked a 3% improvement from the April 2019 estimate of $1,307.1 billion. During the first four months of 2020, construction spending amounted to $412.5 billion, 7.1% above the $385.2 billion for the year-ago period.

Economic activity in the manufacturing sector has been slow to resume, as evidenced by further contracting in May, but the overall economy returned to expansion after one month of contraction, according to supply executives across the U.S. in the latest Manufacturing ISM Report on Business.

The May PMI grew 1.6% from April to 43.1%, indicating expansion in the overall economy after April’s contraction, which had ended 131 consecutive months of growth. The New Orders Index, Production Index, Backlog of Orders Index and Employment Index all showed improvement over April, though the Supplier Deliveries Index was down.

Taking things down to the more granular, distribution-specific level, some additional positives have emerged.

After 10 weeks of sales declines, Indian River Consulting Group’s weekly Pandemic Revenue Index showed its first positive reading – albeit barely in the black – for the workweek of May 25-29.

The index indicated a 0.3% increase compared with the same week a year ago, up significantly from an 11.4% drop in the prior week. The small increase comes after 10 weeks of sales declines, including nine weeks of double-digit declines.

Specifically, the fastener market is improving, according to the most recent Baird/Fastener Distributor Index (FDI) survey. The May FDI was 45, up five points from April’s index of 40, indicating the category is seeing some tailwinds as the coronavirus crisis subsides. We included the results of the FDI survey in our recap of Fastenal’s May sales report.

“The May Baird/FDI survey of fastener distributors showed downward momentum slowed as restrictions were lifted and some manufacturing/construction customers resumed operations,” Baird analyst Dave Manthey last week wrote in a note to investors.

Now the Bad News

Initially, the latest jobs report showed a stunning improvement over the previous month with the U.S. adding 2.5 million jobs in May. But then the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics said employment numbers have been wrong for the past two months and unemployment grew last month to nearly 20 percent.

Also, led by declines in production- and employment-related indicators, the Chicago Fed National Activity Index (CFNAI) fell to -16.74 in April from -4.97 in March. All four broad categories of indicators used to construct the index made negative contributions in April, and all four categories decreased from March. The index’s three-month moving average, the CFNAI-MA3, decreased to -7.22 in April from -1.69 in March.

April also proved a difficult month for HVACR distributors. Last week, Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) released its monthly TRENDS report, showing the average sales performance by HARDI distributors decreased 19.2% in April.

However, the average annual sales growth for the 12 months through April 2020 is 1.3%, and that sector is gearing up for its busy season as the economy begins to reopen.

The range of reports indicates that COVID-19 didn’t hit all sectors or businesses equally. It also shows that companies have some control over how they respond to such a crisis.

Another potential stumbling block could be the widespread protests that have dominated headlines and threatened to prolong the virus and stunt recovery. The news is changing daily, so be sure to stay tuned to MDM’s continuous coverage to adeptly navigate this pandemic.

Join us on Friday, June 12, at 2 p.m. EDT for this week’s MDM Live, featuring more discussion about how distributors are responding to COVID-19, with a conversation with John Caplan, president, North America & Europe, Alibaba.com.

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