April 2011 is the month the U.S. economy started to confront dual threats and the credit community almost instantly reflected the transition. For the past two years the focus of the business community has been almost solely oriented toward recovery and finding strategies that would propel them toward that recovery. The threat of inflation was not a concern beyond the sense that at some point all the efforts to dig out of the downturn would come back to haunt the economy. That was before the price of oil started to accelerate at a rate not seen since the 2008 debacle. Now the inflation threat has become a clear and present danger and one that is affecting the business and credit community.
In March the manufacturing sector held its own and provided the sole piece of good news for the Credit Managers’ Index (CMI Report) as a whole, but in April the sector stumbled and exchanged positions with the service sector. In March the news for the service side was not so good, but in April it staged a bit of a recovery and much of this appears to be related to the hike in inflation as well as the reactions from the business community most affected by price shifts. The changes from month to month have been subtle and the CMI itself barely moved from the position it marked in March, up just 0.1% from 55.7 to 55.8. “The devil is in the details,” said Chris Kuehl, PhD, managing director of Armada Corporate Intelligence and economic advisor for the National Association of Credit Management. “Overall sales stayed at almost the same rate from month to month but that obscures the fact that there was a real reversal of fortune with the two sectors.” Sales fell in the manufacturing sector while they rose in the service sector—the exact opposite of what happened in March. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that inflated pricing in some parts of the economy causes a rise in sales that benefits one group, but punishes another, Kuehl said. Sales from gas station outlets were up so much that the nation’s overall retail numbers rose 0.8%, but when gasoline and food costs are stripped out of that number, the growth falls to 0.3%, a solid indication of how much inflation has had an effect.
Looking at some of the other favorable factors for both sectors there was more evidence of divergence. The number of new credit applications in manufacturing fell to levels not seen since the start of the year, but in the service indicators the fall was even more dramatic—numbers not seen since October of last year. The evidence is pretty strong that business has returned to a more cautious position than they had started to adopt earlier in the year. There is now much more concern about the future of the economy through 2011 and that has caused many businesses to pull back on credit. Given that it was the expansion of credit that had been fueling enthusiasm at the start of this year, one can expect further slowdowns in expansion for the next few months.
Yet another sign of divergence is the rate of dollar collections between the two sectors. Overall, the number improved from 60 to 61.3 but that obscures a shift. Dollar collections were actually down in the manufacturing sector while recovering nicely in the service sector. Commodity inflation is taking a much bigger bite in manufacturing and is affecting cash flow. The bulk of the impact of inflation is being felt in the basic industries at the moment, although the consumer is seeing more of that rise every day. Manufacturers are paying those high fuel costs along with everybody else, but they are also paying record prices for everything from steel to copper to resins and chemicals. It is not just gasoline that goes up when the price of oil rises. The price of feedstock for the fertilizer industry rises and so do the prices of petrochemicals. Transportation costs have risen as well and that affects the manufacturer first as they are paying for the transportation of the raw materials they need.
“The overall news from the CMI is that conditions have stabilized, but the fact is that there is considerable volatility just under the surface,” Kuehl noted. The expectation is that inflation issues will affect the service sector in short order and the advantage held by that category will diminish in future index readings.