Economy Watch: U.S. Manufacturing Gains Steam Again

Orders of manufactured goods made gains in May; bankruptcy filings were down in the first half of this year; and Portuguese debt gets downgraded to junk status.

The nation is manufacturing with some gusto, but maybe not producing that many jobs otherwise. After a stumble last month, U.S. manufacturing seems to be on its feet again, but there’s no guarantee that broader employment situation is going to be any better when the unofficial and official numbers are reported later this week.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce on Tuesday, orders of manufactured goods gained by 0.8 percent in May compared with the previous month. April had seen a 0.9 percent month-over-month drop in orders, mainly attributable to the various supply-chain disruptions caused directly or indirectly by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The May numbers probably reflect a movement toward normalcy for the supply chains, if not their complete repair.

Also, unfilled orders at U.S. factories were up 0.9 percent during May, which was the largest increase since last fall. Inventories were up as well, increasing 0.8 percent to their highest level since Commerce started tracking that figure almost 20 years ago.

Bankruptcy filings down in first half of 2011

The American Bankruptcy Institute said on Tuesday that the number of U.S. household bankruptcy filings was a little more than 709,300 during the first half of 2011, compared with about 770,100 during the first half of 2010, or about 8 percent fewer. In June, consumer bankruptcies were down 5 percent compared with the same month in 2010, though June 2011 numbers were an uptick from May of about 4 percent.

“The drop in bankruptcies for the first half of the year shows the continued efforts of consumers to reduce their household debt, and the overall pullback in consumer credit,” says ABI Executive Director Samuel J. Gerdano in a statement. The total number of consumer bankruptcies for all of 2010 was about 1.5 million, the highest annual total since Congress changed the bankruptcy code to yoke consumers more tightly to their debts.

Nevada still is bankruptcy champ among the states, on a per capita basis, an honor few want. But even that state’s filings were down 16 percent during the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2010.

Moody’s calls Portuguese debt junk

The squall over Greek debt might have passed for the moment, but the Eurozone was reminded on Tuesday that other countries within the magic orb of that artificial currency are ailing too, when Moody’s downgraded Portuguese sovereign debt to junk status. So far, Moody’s is the first of the rating agencies to take that step, but it might not be the last.

The Portuguese finance minister reacted by defending the country’s moves to austerity, which he claimed would “undeniably provide favorable conditions for all the objectives agreed with European and international partners to be fulfilled.” Obviously Moody’s was unpersuaded by the minister’s words.

Perhaps Wall Street was worried about Portugal on Tuesday, or maybe another large advance simply isn’t in the cards after nearly a week of rallies. In any case, the Dow Jones Industrial Average edged down slightly by 12.9 points, or 0.1 percent, while the S&P 500 lost 0.13 percent. The Nasdaq showed a gain of 0.35 percent, however.

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