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US Manufacturers' Optimism Increases in Q4: PwC Survey

Executives focus on domestic market as global uncertainty persists.

There’s no place like home. That seems to be the sentiment among U.S. manufacturers in a new survey, as 48% express optimism about the U.S. economy. Moreover, 83% expect their revenues to go up in the next year and they boosted expected growth rates to 5.2% from 4.6% in the third quarter.

Those findings from the Q4 2012 Manufacturing Barometer released by PwC contrast with the caution expressed by manufacturing leaders about the global economy. Only 32% of survey respondents said they were optimistic about international markets while uncertainty remained high at 53%.

“Overall sentiment among U.S. industrial manufacturers regarding the prospects for the domestic economy rose in the fourth quarter along with company growth projections, which trended higher as well,” observed Bobby Bono, U.S. industrial manufacturing leader for PwC, who added: “Management teams are placing their bets on the U.S. economy as they seek avenues to strengthen their competitive positions and foster growth.”

Reflecting increased optimism, 58% of respondents said they would be hiring, up 21 points from the same period in 2011. Those who are hiring said they are looking for professionals/technicians (58%), skilled laborers (35%) and production workers (43%).

Plans for investment spending remained largely the same as the previous quarter. Some 47% plan major capital improvements, with the mean investment as a percentage of total sales at 5.3%. Operational spending plans were also roughly the same, with 80% of respondents planning increased spending in the next 12 months. Company leaders said they would be spending on facilities expansion (43%0, new products or services (40%) and research & development (38%).

While 35% of respondents are planning M&A activities in the next year, only 23% are planning to expand into new international markets. And only 17% plan to establish new facilities abroad, down from 32% in last year’s fourth quarter.

“We are clearly seeing a pullback in overseas expansion planning, as management teams cautiously analyze the global outlook and keep their cash onshore,” said Bono. “Bolstered by strong balance sheets, we can expect to see a reversal of these trends as the global macroeconomic climate improves and companies seek to more aggressively compete for business in international markets.”

Manufacturers said their biggest barrier to growth was lack of demand (52%), though this was down significantly (15 points) from the third quarter. Other factors included legislative/regulatory pressures (47%), oil/energy prices (42%) and tax policies (33%).

Moderate price increases were experienced by manufacturers in the survey. Some 35% reported higher costs while 17% reported lower costs. Twenty-five percent of the manufacturers said they raised prices but 15% lowered them. Gross margins increased for 35% of the companies while 22% had reduced margins, a 10 point improvement from the third quarter.

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