The Federal Reserve raised its short-term interest rate target and signals its intention to do so several more times this year. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 23.
The Fed bumps up its short-term interest rate target…and its economic forecast. The policy statement released after this past week’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) noted that the economy was growing “at a moderate rate” and the labor market had “continued to strengthen,” featuring “strong” job gains. Nonetheless, core inflation remained under its two-percent target. As a result, the committee voted without dissent to raise the fed funds target rate by 25-basis points to a range between 1.50 and 1.75 percent. The statement continued to note that economic conditions are likely to “warrant” further hikes, but that interest rates would likely remain accommodative “for some time.”
The expectation of what “some time” may mean is presented with the updated economic forecasts of the FOMC meeting participants published in conjunction with the above policy statement. The median fed funds target rate forecast remains at 2.1 percent at the end of 2018, suggesting two more 25-basis points hikes this year. The consensus forecast places the expected fed funds target at 2.9 percent (i.e., three rate hikes) for 2019 and 3.4 percent (i.e., two rate hikes) for 2020. The same forecast has the U.S. economy growing 2.7 percent for all of 2018 (up from the prior forecast of a 2.5 percent gain) and 2.4 percent in 2019 (up from the previous forecast of 2.1 percent).
Existing homes sales grew for the first time in three months in February. The National Association of Realtors reports that sales of previously owned homes grew 3.0 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 5.540 million units. This was 1.1 percent ahead of the year-ago sales pace. During the month, existing home sales surged 11.4 percent in the West and 6.6 percent in the South but slowed 12.3 percent in the Northeast and 2.4 percent in the Midwest. Only two regions—the South (+3.4 percent) and West (+2.4 percent)—reported positive 12-month sales comparables. While inventories of unsold homes grew 4.6 percent during February to 1.590 million units, this was the equivalent to a very tight 3.4 month supply. As a result, the median sales price of existing homes has grown 5.9 percent over the past year to $241,700. The press release noted that “the very healthy U.S. economy and labor market are creating a sizeable interest in buying a home in early 2018,” but also that “affordability continues to be a pressing issue” because of a lack of homes available on the market.
…But new home sales slipped again. Sales of new single-family homes inched down 0.6 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 618,000 units. Even with the decline, the annualized rate of the Census Bureau data series was 0.5 percent above that of a year earlier. Sales during the month in the Northeast (+19.4 percent) and South (+9.0 percent) but dropped in the West (-17.6 percent) and Midwest (-3.7 percent). In comparison to February 2017, sales grew in three regions—Northeast (+8.8 percent), West (+3.1 percent), and South (+0.6 percent)—but declined 8.1 percent in the Midwest. Inventories of new homes continued their gradual expansion—the 305,000 new homes available for sale at the end of February was up 2.0 percent for the month, a 16.0 percent advance from February 2017, and represented a still relatively tight 5.9 month supply. The median sales price of new homes of $326,800 was a 9.7 percent increase from a year earlier.
Durable goods orders surged during February. The Census Bureau estimates the value of new durable goods orders was at a seasonally adjusted $247.7 billion. This was the third increase over the past four months and a healthy rebound from January’s 3.5 percent drop. Transportation goods orders surged 7.1 percent, in part due to a jump in increased orders for both civilian (+25.5 percent) and defense aircraft (+37.7 percent) in addition to a 1.8 percent bounce in orders for motor vehicles. Net of transportation orders, new durable goods gained 1.2 percent after pulling backing 0.2 percent in January. New orders grew for primary metals (+2.7 percent), electrical equipment/appliances (+2.6 percent), machinery (+1.6 percent), and fabricated metal products (+0.8 percent). New orders for nondefense capital goods minus aircraft (a proxy for business investment) grew 1.8 percent during February after having pulled back 0.4 percent during the prior month.
Forward-looking economic indicators continue to suggest solid growth in 2018. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) grew by 7/10ths of a point during February to a seasonally adjusted 108.8 (2016=100). The LEI has increased for five straight months, rising 6.5 percent over the past year. Eight of the ten components to the LEI made positive contributions to the index, led by average weekly manufacturing hours, new orders for manufactured goods (per ISM), and jobless claims. The coincident economic index added 3/10ths of a point during the month to a reading of 103.3 (+2.3 percent versus February 2017), with all four components on that index making positive contributions (led by industrial production and nonfarm payrolls). The lagging economic index picked up 4/10ths of a point to 104.3 (+2.6 percent versus February 2017) as four of seven index components making positive contributions (led by the average length of unemployment). The press release notes that the six-month growth rate for the leading index had not been this high since the first quarter of 2011.
Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
– Jobless Claims (week ending March 17, 2018, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 229,000 (+3,000 vs. previous week; -32,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 223,750 (-9.2% vs. the same week a year earlier).
– State Employment (February 2018, Nonfarm Employment, seasonally adjusted): Vs. January 2018: 11 states had significant payroll increases. Vs. February 2017: 24 states had significant payroll increases.
– FHFA House Price Index (January 2018, Purchase-Only Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.8% vs. December 2017, +7.3% vs. January 2017.
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