Outlook mixed as momentum hits wall

CHICAGO – Some manufacturers are hunkering down, others are marching on and a few are moving out of their comfort zones. This mixed pattern is likely to stretch through the middle part of next year, when the fog of uncertainty is expected to lift. In the interim, many manufacturers appear to be stalled.

“There is a bit of disconnect between manufacturing in 2012 and 2013,” said Adolfo Laurenti, deputy chief economist at Mesirow Financial. He explained that the past year’s momentum largely has hit a wall.

Manufacturers worry that expiring tax cuts, the possibility of tax hikes and government spending cuts could push the U.S. into another recession. Manufacturers that export also are dealing with Europe’s economic crisis and the slowdown of emerging economies, such as China and Brazil.

“Overall, the entire global economy is still weak,” Laurenti said. “We don’t have one growth engine. It’s clear that the U.S. faces a lot of uncertainty. Europe is problematic. If there isn’t a shock, we can get by.”

But if something does go wrong, Laurenti added, the ramifications could be devastating.

Deb Oler, a vice president and general manager with W.W. Grainger Inc., a supplier of industrial goods ranging from machine parts to trash bags, said some businesses are purchasing just enough to keep their factories open. Many customers, she said, have said that capital projects and hiring have been on hold for the last 60 to 90 days.

“They all lived through 2008-2009 and do not want to go through that again,” Oler said.

Michael DeWalt, Caterpillar Inc.’s director of investor relations, said during a recent conference that the Peoria-based maker of earthmoving equipment will not spend as much in 2013 as it had expected to upgrade its factories or to build new ones. The company has said its spending will be lower than in 2012 but has not divulged specific numbers.

Tom Wujek, chief operating officer of Downers Grove-based Flexco, said he sees growth opportunities outside the U.S., mainly by increasing market share. In the U.S., Flexco, which makes cleaning systems, belt positioners and other products for belt conveyors, has increased sales by adding to its product line.

Next year Flexco plans to spend between $4 million and $5 million on new equipment and staff at its U.S. facilities, Wujek said, but noted that the final figure hangs on how Congress deals with the “fiscal cliff” and whether taxes are raised.

“We are being very cautious. We still have investment planned for 2013 but we are a bit, sort of, in a wait-and-see mode until Congress sorts it out,” Wujek said.

That wait-and-see mode has Scott Eisen, president of Chicago-based Ideal, a corrugated box and displays maker, projecting slower growth in 2013. This year, sales of boxes and displays, the kind typically found near the registers at big-box retail stores like Target, rose by 15 to 17 percent from 2011. Eisen expects sales to grow “north” of 10 percent in 2013.

Eisen said the company’s sales could decline if retailers push back product launches because of the economic uncertainty and, as a result, hold back on orders for displays. Still, Eisen plans to move ahead with his spending about $6 million in factory equipment.

On hiring expectations for next year, Robert Livingston, chief executive of Dover Corp., a diversified manufacturer of industrial products based in Downers Grove, said, “I can’t think of a single project that we have planned for the first few months of 2013 that would require additional labor or to expand our capacity.”

He later added, “Most of us looking at 2013 see modest growth for the general economy in the U.S. with a low of 1.5 percent and a high of 2.5 percent. But if we go off the (fiscal) cliff, all bets are off.”