Aug 26, 2021 - Economy & Business

American manufacturers have some work to do

Graph showing U.S. manufacturers' backlog of orders.
Data: Census Bureau, FRED; Chart: Axios Visuals

Orders for durable goods stalled unexpectedly in July. But manufacturers have plenty of backlogs to work through.

Why it matters: There are a lot of businesses across the economy with empty shelves as they wait for manufacturers to ship the goods. This has been crimping sales while also driving inflation.

  • Order backlogs offer a snapshot of how much stuff manufacturers have yet to deliver.

By the numbers: Unfilled orders — the backlog — of manufactured goods grew 0.3% month over month to $1.23 trillion in July, according to Census Bureau data released Wednesday.

  • This was the sixth consecutive month of gains.
  • The backlog of core capital goods orders climbed to a record-high $230.9 billion.

What they’re saying: “Huge order backlogs will keep manufacturers busy,” ING chief international economist James Knightley says. “With customer inventories at all-time lows, manufacturers are also gaining pricing power and this can already be seen in numerous surveys of prices received.”

  • “Backlogs in the manufacturing sector are expected to take well into 2022 to clear,” Grant Thornton chief economist Diane Swonk says.

Between the lines: While this may sound good from a demand perspective, the pressure is high for manufacturers to compete.

  • “When it comes to unfilled orders for manufacturers, it’s like being a bartender on a super busy night,” Tim Quinlan, Wells Fargo senior economist, tells Axios. “It’s good in the sense that you are three deep at the bar.”
  • “But it can be bad if you’re out of lime wedges, you're running out of booze and your other bartender called in to tell you he just took another job. You’re slammed, but your customers are gonna find another place for a drink if you can’t pick up the pace."

Zoom out: UBS U.S. economist Sam Coffin notes that while unfilled orders have been on the rise, shipments of goods have risen even faster.

  • “The ratio of unfilled orders to shipments surged during the pandemic amid supply constraints,” he tells Axios. “It has fallen back to a more normal ratio and does not look particularly high or low, in aggregate, now.”
  • In fact, shipments climbed 2.2% month over month to a record-high $257.8 billion in July.

The bottom line: The good news for manufacturers is they have a lot of stuff to make. The good news for their customers is that this stuff is getting manufactured and shipped at an increasing rate.

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