Home sales and starts grew in October, but builder confidence stumbled nonetheless. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending November 23.
Existing home sales grew for the first time in seven months in October. Sales of previously owned homes increased 1.4 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 5.22 million units, its first increase since March. The National Association of Realtors tells us that sales grew in the three of four Census regions: West (+2.8 percent), South (+1.9 percent), and Northeast (+1.4 percent). Sales slipped 0.8 percent in the Midwest. Existing home sales have fallen a sharp 5.1 percent over the past year, with negative 12-month comparables in all four Census regions: West (-11.2 percent), Northeast (-6.8 percent), Midwest (-3.1 percent), and South (-2.3 percent). Inventories of homes available for sale remained very tight as there were 1.85 million homes on the market at the end of October, down 1.6 percent for the month and the equivalent to a 4.3 month supply. The median sales price of homes sold was $255,400, up 3.8 percent from that of a year earlier. This slower growth rate in home prices allowed, according to the press release, “for much more manageable, less frenzied buying conditions.”
Housing starts grew, but homebuilders were less confident about the market. The Census Bureau reports that housing starts increased 1.5 percent to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.228 million units. Even with the increase, starts were 2.9 percent behind the year-ago pace. October’s gain was solely on the multi-unit side—starts of five or more unit housing increased 6.2 percent during the month. Meanwhile, single-family home starts slowed 1.8 percent. Looking towards the future, the number of issues building permits slipped 0.6 percent to a SAAR of 1.27 million units (-6.0 percent versus October 2017). Fewer homes were finished as the new home housing completed fell 3.3 percent during the month to 1.111 million units (SAAR).
The Housing Market Index (HMI), the National Association of Home Builder’s measure of builders’ sentiment, plummeted by eight points to a seasonally adjusted 60. While this was the 53rd consecutive month in which the HMI was above a reading of 50—meaning more homebuilders see the housing market as “good” rather than “bad”—it was the index’s lowest mark since August 2016. The HMI fell sharply in all four Census regions: Northeast (down nine points to 52), West (down nine points to 65), Midwest (down six points to 54), and South (down five points to 65). Also losing ground were indices for single-family home sales (down seven points to 67), expected sales (down ten points to 65), and traffic of prospective buyers (down eight points to 45). The press release notes survey respondents had stated consumers were “taking a pause due to concerns over rising interest rates and home prices.”
Forward-looking economic indicators suggest moderating growth over the near-term. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) grew by only 1/10th of a point in October to a seasonally adjusted 112.1, its smallest increase since May and representing a still robust 5.9 percent gain over the past year. Five of the LEI’s ten components made positive contributions during the month, led by consumers’ economic expectations and the interest rate spread. The coincident index added 2/10ths of a point to a reading of 104.7, up 2.2 over the prior 12 months. All four coincident index components made positive contributions, including nonfarm payrolls and personal income net of transfer payments. The lagging index increased by 4/10ths of a point to 105.5 (+2.5 percent versus October 2017), with four of seven components making positive contributions. The press release stressed that the reading still suggests “robust economic growth in early 2019,” but also that rate of economic growth “may already have peaked.”
Durable goods orders slumped in October. The Census Bureau estimates new orders for manufactured durable goods plummeted 4.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted $248.5 billion, its third decrease over the past four months. Aircraft orders can be volatile month-to-month and tend to be a primary driver for the headline estimate of durable goods orders, and October was no exception. Civilian aircraft orders fell 21.3 percent and defense aircraft orders slumped 59.3 percent. As a result, overall transportation goods order declined 12.2 percent (motor vehicle orders inched up 0.2 percent). Net of transportation goods, durable goods orders eked out a 0,1 percent gain. Falling during the month were orders for primary metals (-2.3 percent) and machinery (-0.5 percent) while orders rose for electrical equipment/appliances (+2.9 percent), computers/electronics (+1.6 percent), and fabricated metal products (+1.0 percent). Weakness continued for core capital goods (i.e., civilian capital goods net of aircraft—a proxy for business investment), which were unchanged in October after having declined in both August and September.
Consumer sentiment edged down in November. The Index of Consumer Sentiment from the University of Michigan lost 1.1 points during the month to a seasonally adjusted reading of 97.5 (1966Q1=100). This reading was 8/10ths of a point below the preliminary November reading reported a few weeks ago and one full point under the November 2017 mark. The index has been within a relatively tight 5.7 point range over the past 12 months. The current conditions index shed 8/10ths of a point during the month to a reading of 112.3 (November 2017: 113.5) while the expectations index fell by 1.2 points to 88.1 (November 2017: 88.9). The press release noted that sentiment among lower-income survey respondents had improved during the month while that of higher income respondents had slumped.
Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
– Jobless Claims (week ending November 17, 2018, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 224,000 (+3,000 vs. previous week; -15,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 218,500 (-9.0% vs. the same week a year earlier).
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