Opinion: Industrials' long coattails can carry the U.S. economy

If the U.S. avoids a recession, or at least a deep one, it will most likely be able to thank industrial companies.

While demand on the consumer side of the economy is weakening, it remains solid in the manufacturing sector and, more important, appears to be sustainable even if shoppers cut back further. Consider the outlook from a few companies most people pay little attention to.

Eaton Corp. CEO Craig Arnold said variations of “strong” and “strength” more than 45 times during a conference call with analysts on Aug. 2, and that’s not counting references to the dollar.

“It feels positive, in some cases, too positive,” said Arnold, whose company makes electrical gear for construction, power, autos and aerospace, among other goods. With a market value of about $60 billion, Eaton isn’t small.

Illinois Tool Works Inc., which is even larger than Eaton, said its organic sales were up 18% in July from a year earlier, the highest monthly growth rate all year. The company makes all kinds of products for the food service, test and measurement, welding, construction and auto industries, and most of those areas are “off to a really strong start in Q3.”

Companies as diverse as chemical maker DuPont de Nemours Inc., industrial distributor W.W. Grainger Inc. and a metal-bender like Arconic Corp. are saying the same thing: The manufacturing economy is sizzling.

“The industrial parts of the economy are certainly growing faster for us than the non-industrial parts right now,” said DG Macpherson, CEO of Grainger, which sells just about any industrial-related part or gadget you can think of.

While the strength of the industrial economy isn’t new, its ability to power through a downturn in consumer spending is a change from past cycles.

“We strongly believe that the industrial economy will decouple from the consumer economy,” Scott Davis, an analyst with Melius Research, said in an email. “There’s just too much pent-up demand for projects and megaprojects that are based more on secular changes than cyclical.”

The reasons for this decoupling are multifold. An obvious one is the recovery of investment in the oil and gas industry. Although some industrial companies pulled back exposure to energy, especially in activity closer to the wellhead, after oil prices sank in mid-2014, the increase in drilling reverberates broadly through the industrial economy with increased demand for steel, construction, trucks and safety equipment.

Another is that the makers of autos and heavy trucks are still struggling to keep up with demand and have huge holes in their inventories that will take a while to rebuild. There were 95,000 cars in inventory in June, down from a monthly average of 660,000 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The number of Class 8 trucks, as the big rigs are known, in backlog as a ratio of the build rate was about 10 for the first six months this year, which is lower than last year when the computer-chip shortage was at its peak, but still higher than 6.6 in 2019, according to FTR Associates data. It’s the opposite problem from large retailers, which are grappling with too much inventory.

Makers of commercial and private jets also have big backlogs to fill as people, restless from the COVID-19 shut-ins, are on the move again. Construction projects are moving forward, and even consumer-facing companies are continuing with projects to improve their logistics, an area where costs jumped during the pandemic.

The transition to cleaner energy also is also feeding the fire of industrial demand, and the climate change bill passed by the Senate over the weekend would keep those flames burning for some time — perhaps even through a consumer recession.

Eaton’s Arnold has positioned his company to ride the wave of electrical power demand as economies wean themselves off oil. The company has a long history of selling transformers and circuit breakers for power generation and transmission and recently made a push to become a key supplier to electric vehicle manufacturers. The company boosted its 2002 earnings-per-share guidance by 4 cents to a midpoint of $7.56 and increased its forecast for annual organic sales growth to as much as 13% from 11%.

“So despite all the talk about potential slowdown and downturn in the market, and we’ll be ready if we have one, we’re focused on investing to capitalize on what we see as the super growth cycle, driven by favorable trends in the recovery and some of our other end markets,” Arnold said on the call.

Eaton, DuPont and ITW, which raised its guidance in May, called out international weakness from the China lockdowns and Europe’s difficulties with soaring energy prices. Still, there are no signs the international weakness is bleeding over to the U.S. The year-over-year increase in U.S. industrial production in June was more than 4%, a solid pace, and that comes on top of the big rebound of more than 9% in June last year.

Ironically, the same supply chain snags that stoked inflation because demand wasn’t being met also kept a lid on the overbuilding of vehicles, homes, electronics and other goods that normally would occur and then cause a pullback in output. The trucking industry, for example, is notorious for the boom-and-bust cycles because companies buy too many trucks when freight demand is strong and then have too much capacity when cargo cools. Those truckers were never able to purchase all the trucks they wanted. There will be no big bust this cycle.

Add it all up, and it makes sense that the manufacturing industry can buoy the economy through a downturn in consumer spending.

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