U.S. factory output falls in April

U.S. manufacturers cut back on production in April, as auto companies cranked out fewer cars, factories made fewer consumer goods and most other industries reduced output.

The weakness suggests economic growth may be slowing.

On a positive note, confidence among U.S. homebuilders rebounded this month, reflecting improved sales trends during the spring home-selling season and the strongest outlook for sales over the next six months in more than six years. The increase for May was the first month-to-month gain since December. Concerns over rising costs for land, building materials and labor dimmed builders’ confidence in recent months.

Also, sharp drops in fuel and food costs reduced a measure of U.S. wholesale prices in April by the most in three years. Outside those volatile categories, inflation stayed tame.

The producer price index, which measures price changes before they reach the consumer, fell a seasonally adjusted 0.7 percent in April from March, the Labor Department said Wednesday. It was the second straight monthly decline and the steepest since February 2010.

Lower inflation means the Federal Reserve has more leeway to continue its aggressive policies to boost economic growth.

The Federal Reserve said Wednesday that factory output dropped 0.4 percent in April, the third decline in four months.

Production of autos and auto parts fell 1.3 percent in April. The drop is likely temporary because automakers are reporting stronger sales.

Still, the declines in April were broad-based. Factories produced fewer machines, electrical equipment, clothes, appliances, furniture and primary metals. Manufacturers made more computers and electronic products, among the few areas that showed gains.

Factories are making fewer goods in part because of a weaker global economy, which has reduced demand for U.S. exports. And exports are likely to stay sluggish because 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.

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.

A separate regional manufacturing report indicated that factory activity in the New York region shrank in May, signaling further weakness. Still, there are some signs that factory output could pick up later this year, particularly in the auto 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.

American consumers have shown surprising resilience this year, even after an increase in Social Security taxes has lowered their take-home pay. Many economists say a better job market, cheaper gasoline and sustained gains in housing has helped offset the pinch from the tax increase.

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.

Most economists expect economic growth has weakened in the second 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