US factory output falls 0.4 percent in April

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U.S. factories cut back sharply on production in April, as auto companies cranked out fewer cars and most other industries reduced output. The weakness in manufacturing suggests economy growth may be slowing this spring.
    
The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that manufacturing output dropped 0.4 percent in April from March. It was the third decline in four months and the biggest since October.
    
Production of autos and auto parts fell 1.3 percent in April. The decline is likely temporary because automakers are reporting stronger sales.
    
Overall industrial production, which also includes output at utilities and mines, dropped 0.5 percent in April. That's the biggest decline since August. Utility production plunged 3.7 percent, as power output returned to more normal levels after an unusually cold March.
    
Factory output, the largest component of industrial production, is falling at a time when a weaker global economy has reduced demand for U.S. exports. And American businesses are worried that federal spending cuts and higher Social Security taxes could drag on economic growth this year.
    
U.S. exports to Europe are likely to stay weak now that the recession of the 17 European Union countries that use the euro has extended into its sixth quarter.
    
"American manufacturers are continuing to struggle in the face of subdued global demand," said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics.
    
A separate regional manufacturing report indicated that factory activity in the New York region shrank in May, signaling further weakness. The New York Federal Reserve Bank's Empire State manufacturing survey fell to - 1.4 in May, down from 3.1 in April.
    
In April, the weak output in industrial production reflected declines in primary metals, machinery, electrical equipment, aerospace, clothing, paper and petroleum. Computers and electronic products were one of the few areas showing a gain.
    
One area of strength for the economy had been auto sales, and the April decline in output is likely a temporary lull for the industry.
    
Ford, GM, Chrysler and Nissan all reported double-digit U.S. sales increases, signaling the best April for car and truck sales in six years. Car sales have risen steadily this year after reaching a five-year high in 2012.
    
Still, other data on U.S. manufacturing have been disappointing. The Institute for Supply Management said that its index of manufacturing activity slowed to a reading of 50.7 in April - lowest reading this year. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.
    
So far, the consumer has remained resilient in the face of higher taxes.
    
The overall economy grew at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the January-March quarter, buoyed by the fastest rise in consumer spending in more than two years.
    
And lower-priced gas helped Americans boost spending at retailers in April, from cars and clothes to electronics and appliances. That raised hopes that the April-June quarter is off to a good start.
    
Steady job growth and cheaper gasoline has helped offset some of the pinch from higher taxes. And a surging stock market and increases in home prices may be making consumers feel wealthier and more inclined to spend.
    
Most economists still expect growth to weaken slightly in the April-June quarter. But after seeing the more upbeat retail sales figures for April, some analysts raised their forecasts. Analysts at JPMorgan now predict growth will slow to a 2 percent rate, up from their previous forecast of 1.5 percent.

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