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Bad news, bad weather

A dog stands on a sidewalk while being walked in the rain and snow on February 13, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. 

There has been a steady drip of economic news this week, and it has pretty much matched the recent weather: Blech. In fact, weather’s gotten a lot of blame. Housing starts fall? Crummy weather. Regional manufacturing declines? Ditto. But some economists worry the weather is masking a deeper chill.

Mike Trebing is pretty firmly in the blame-the-snow camp. At least when it comes to Pennsylvania specifically: 

“I had a tree on the top of my house and I was personally out of electricity for four days” 

It’s the worst snowstorm he can remember in the last two decades. Trebing, who is senior economic analyst at The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, wasn’t surprised area manufacturing contracted in February for the first time in nine months.

Companies reported “power outages and employees not being able to get into work. Some spot shortages of energy products,” he says.

Trebing notes that more than half of the manufacturing firms surveyed still thought production would increase in the first quarter. They thought the weather effects were temporary.

Makes sense across the economy, right? There’s a polar vortex or two, people shop less, buy fewer cars, etc. But economist Peter Morici of the University of Maryland says there may be more to it.

“It’s not cold weather,” he says, “it’s the fact that it’s colder than normal. And it’s the margin that matters. And we haven’t had enough of a margin to cause the kind of slowdowns that we’re seeing. That’s why I’m starting to get concerned that this is more than the chill.”

In other words, that the economy is fundamentally slowing. We’ll know if the numbers don’t bounce back in the thaw.

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