US manufacturing output stumbled in August

U.S. factory production fell last month amid cutbacks in appliances, home electronics and machinery.

The Federal Reserve said Thursday factory production dropped 0.4 percent in August, following two months of gains. A broader measure of industrial output, which includes mines and utilities, also dropped 0.4 percent.

Manufacturers have struggled for the past 18 months with sluggish global growth, the strong dollar, and reluctance among U.S. businesses to spend more on large machinery and equipment. That has dragged down factory output 0.4 percent from a year ago. The slowdown has also cost about 30,000 factory workers their jobs in the past year.

Utility output fell 1.4 percent in August after a strong gain in the previous two months that reflected increased use of air conditioning during hotter-than-usual summer weather. Mining production rose 1 percent, the fourth increase in a row after a string of declines that mostly reflected sharp drops in oil and gas drilling due to lower oil prices. Still, mining output remains 9.3 percent lower than a year ago.

The dollar rose nearly 20 percent in late 2014 through last year. That has cut into U.S. exports by making them more expensive, while lowering the price of competing imports.

Businesses have ratcheted back their spending this year on machinery, computers and other larger equipment, even as the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates low in hopes of spurring more investment. That has lowered demand for manufactured goods.

The business spending slump has been led by energy firms, which slashed investment in new steel pipes and machinery after oil prices plummeted. That could reverse soon as oil prices have stabilized.

Factory output had expanded in June and July, raising hopes that manufacturing might be starting to grow again. But other signs have been mixed.

The Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing index fell sharply last month to 49.4. Any reading below 50 indicates contraction.

Yet a separate report earlier this month from the Commerce Department showed that factories received more orders in July, a sign that production could pick up in the coming months.