On Friday, the Federal Reserve released its report on industrial production and capacity utilization. Sound like a sleeper? Well, grab a cup of joe and wake up, because the data contained some important nuggets for investors.
This report is notable for two reasons. On the industrial production side, we get a look at whether manufacturing in the country is ramping up or scaling back. Meanwhile, the utilization side indicates how efficiently equipment and resources are being used; when utilization gets too high, it can be an early warning signal for inflation.
In December, total production rose 0.6% from November, though a good deal of the gain can be attributed to a 5.9% bump in utility production. The manufacturing segment was down 0.1%. The overall industrial production gain, though, does continue a course reversal that has the total index up 4.7% since July, after suffering a year and a half of nearly continuous declines.
What I found more interesting about the Fed's report, though, was the capacity utilization numbers. Overall capacity utilization edged up to 72% from 71.5% in November. This is still below the 1972-2007 average of 81% and suggests that we have excess capacity in the economy that needs to be put back to work.
However, energy quickly jumps out as a hot spot in the mix. Capacity utilization for oil and gas extraction was at 97% versus a long-term average of 92%, and petroleum and crude processing utilization was 86%, right on its long-term average. In general, when capacity starts getting toward its upper limits, companies are more fully utilizing their equipment (which makes them more profitable) and they can often start raising prices.
My takeaway? Though there may still be substantial slack in the overall economy, energy companies look like they're in a pretty good position. This could impact big integrated oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil
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Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool. The Fool's disclosure policy has never once been caught with its pants down. Of course, it doesn't actually wear pants ...