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Factory Production Up 2nd Straight Month

Economy: Output increases 0.7% in May. Separately, consumer optimism on finances rises.

June 15, 1996|From Times Wire Services

WASHINGTON — U.S. industries increased production for a second straight month in May and businesses showed signs of rebuilding depleted inventories, a move that could mean even greater output and more jobs.

The Federal Reserve Board said Friday that output at the nation's factories, mines and utilities rose 0.7% in May, after seeing an identical advance a month earlier. The April rate was revised downward however; it was initially reported at 0.9%.

At the same time, the Commerce Department reported that business inventories rose 0.4% in April after shrinking 0.3% the previous month.

"The economy clearly has rebounded from its weakness last year," said economist Gary Thayer of A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc., a St. Louis stock brokerage.

Richard Berner, an economist at Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, agreed, although he said he expects economic growth to slow from a 4% annualized rate this quarter to about 3% in the next.

Separately, a key reading of consumer sentiment found Americans to be more optimistic about their finances and economic prospects this month. The University of Michigan said its preliminary index of consumer sentiment for June rose to 93.8 from 89.4 in May.

"The manufacturing sector is back on a growth track after dragging along the bottom," said Robert Dederick, an economic consultant at Chicago's Northern Trust Co. "The economy is firing on all cylinders. The Fed is going to have to be on an inflation watch."

Unlike other recent reports highlighting strength in the economy, though, Friday's economic indicators didn't spook bond investors. That was due in part to April's gain in industrial production being revised downward as well as relief that the May number wasn't larger.

Analysts said it appears the inventory growth was intended, based on an anticipated increase in demand.

"We had several quarters of inventory correction, and we are now at the point where the economy is doing better and businesses are feeling comfortable holding bigger stockpiles," Thayer said.

The Fed report also showed that the nation's industries were operating at 83.2% of capacity in April, up from 82.9% a month earlier and 82.6% in February.

But Elliott Platt, an economist with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corp. in New York, contended that "despite the increase, capacity utilization remains a safe distance from any rate that may create manufacturing bottlenecks and ignite inflation."

Economists differ over whether recent signs of an expanding economy may cause Federal Reserve Board policymakers to raise short-term interest rates this summer in an effort to hold inflation at bay.

The Fed said industrial production was led in May by gains in utilities, business equipment and durable goods.

In its report, the Commerce Department said inventories rose 0.4% in April, to a seasonally adjusted $984.1 billion, after posting a 0.3% decline in March, the first since December.

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