WASHINGTON — Business activity expanded in November for the first time in three months, showing superstorm Sandy is less damaging to the economy nationally.
The MNI Chicago Report’s business barometer rose to 50.4 from 49.9 in October. A reading of 50 is the dividing line between expansion and contraction. The median estimate of 53 economists surveyed by Bloomberg forecast the gauge would rise to 50.5.
The reading contrasts with earlier reports from the Philadelphia and New York region that showed the largest Atlantic storm ever to hit the United States had halted manufacturing in that part of the country. At the same time, the prospect that lawmakers will be unable to avert $607 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts at the beginning of 2013 may prevent the economy from strengthening further.
It’s “better than what we’ve been seeing,” Carl Riccadonna, senior U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, said before the report. The economy “is lukewarm right now.”
The MNI Chicago Report’s gauge of new orders fell to 45.3, the weakest reading since the recession ended in June 2009, from 50.6 in October. A measure of employment increased to 55.2 from 50.3. Production accelerated, with the index climbing to 54.7 from 51.8, Friday’s report showed.
Consumer spending and business investment have slowed as the looming fiscal cliff hinders economic growth at the end of 2012.
Another report Friday showed consumer spending unexpectedly declined in October and incomes stagnated in October as Sandy kept some in the Northeast from getting to work or from shopping at malls and car dealerships. Purchases decreased 0.2 percent, the weakest reading since May, after a 0.8 percent gain in the prior month, according to Commerce Department data.
The economy expanded more than previously estimated in the third quarter as a narrower trade deficit and accumulating inventory more than offset a greater-than-projected slowdown in consumer spending. Gross domestic product grew at a 2.7 percent annual rate, the Commerce Department reported Thursday, while household purchases climbed at a 1.4 percent rate, the least in more than a year.
Freight company CSX, in Norfolk, Va., has furloughed hundreds of workers and put about 400 locomotives out of service in response to soft demand, due in part to the disruptions caused by Sandy.
At Microchip Technology, in Chandler, Ariz., Chief Operating Officer Ganesh Moorthy said it’s too soon to tell whether the business environment has reached a bottom as global demand weakens.
“We have Europe in a recession and we’re not quite sure when that all turns around,” Moorthy said at a Nov. 28 conference. “We have some of the growing economies China, India that all have their own issues as well,” he said. “So we were not ready and we are not ready to call a bottom.”
Economists monitor the Chicago index and other regional manufacturing reports for an early reading on the national outlook. The Chicago group includes manufacturers and service providers with operations in the U.S. and abroad, making the gauge a measure of overall growth.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s general economic index showed manufacturing in the area covering New York, northern New Jersey and southern Connecticut contracted in November for a fourth consecutive month. The Fed Bank of Philadelphia’s index dropped to a four-month low.
The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index for November, which is due Monday, likely showed expansion for the third month, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg.