A Dovish Fed: March 18 – 22

The Fed signals that it will not hike short-term interest rates this year. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 22.

#1The Fed’s campaign of raising short-term interest rates is over (for now). The policy statement published after the past week’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) noted that economic activity growth had “slowed from its solid rate” but that the labor market “remains strong.” Also decelerating were growth rates of both household spending and business investment. Inflation fell below the Fed’s two-percent target rate—largely due to lower energy prices—with core inflation closer to the target. As a result, the FOMC voted unanimously to keep the fed funds target rate at a range between 2.25 and 2.50 percent and (perhaps more notably) stated that it would be “patient” as to if/when it would again raise rates. The Fed bases its patience on “global economic and financial developments and muted inflation pressures.” Written another way, the Fed no longer expects to raise its interest rate target in 2019—not long ago up to three rate increases had been the consensus expectation for this year.

#2Forward-looking measures suggest economic activity was picking back up in early 2019. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) added 2/10ths of a point during February to a reading of 111.5 (2016=100), its best reading since last September. This measure had sputtered along since last October—trading within a 2/10ths of a point range—but has risen 3.0 percent over the past year. Six of ten LEI components grew in February, with the most significant positive contributor being rising stock prices. The coincident index also added 2/10ths of a point to 105.9 (+2.5 percent versus February 2018) as all four index components making positive contributions. The lagging index held firm at 107.0 during February, growing by a modest 0.8 percent over the past year. The press release notes that the results—particularly, the recent sluggishness in the leading index—suggest economic growth “could decelerate by year end.” 

#3Existing home sales bounced back big in February. The National Association of Realtors reports that sales of previously owned homes surged 11.8 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 5.51 million units. This was the best month for existing home sales since last March but still left sales 1.8 percent behind the year-ago sales pace. Sales expanded in three of four Census regions in February: West (+16.0 percent), South (+14.9 percent), and Midwest (+9.5 percent). Meanwhile, sales in Northeast matched January’s pace. There were 1.63 million homes available for purchase at the end of February, up 2.5 percent from January and 3.2 percent from a year earlier. Nonetheless, inventories represented a very tight 3.5 month supply. The median sales price of $249,500 was up 3.6 percent from a year earlier. NAR’s press release tie February’s strong housing report to “a powerful combination of lower mortgage rates, more inventory, rising income and higher consumer confidence.”

#4Homebuilders sentiment was stable in March. The National Association of Homebuilders’ Housing Market Index (HMI) remained at a seasonally adjusted reading of 62. This was the 57th consecutive month the HMI was above a reading of 50, indicative of a higher percentage of survey respondents viewing the housing market as “good” as opposed to being “poor.” The HMI improved in three of four Census regions, with only the Midwest seeing a decline in the sentiment measure. Improving during the month with indices measuring present sales of single-family homes (up two points to 68) and expected home sales (up three points to 71, while the measure tracking the traffic of prospective buyers lost four points to 44. The press release noted that homebuilders are challenged by a “skilled worker shortage, lack of buildable lots and stiff zoning restrictions in many major metro markets.”

#5Factory orders grew slightly in January. The Census Bureau reports that new orders for manufactured goods increased for a second straight month, albeit at a modest 0.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted $500.5 billion. Net of transportation goods, factory orders slowed 0.2 percent while core capital goods orders (which are nondefense capital goods net of aircraft) jumped 0.8 percent. Durable goods orders gained 0.3 percent those of nondurables pulled back 0.2 percent. Shipments dropped for the fourth straight month with a 0.4 percent decline to $503.1 billion while nontransportation goods shipments slowed by a more modest 0.2 percent. Unfilled orders swelled for the first time in four months with a 0.1 percent bump to $1.182 trillion while inventories grew 0.5 percent to $685.7 billion (its 26th gain in 27 months).

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending March 16, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 221,000 (-9,000 vs. previous week; -6,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 225,000 (Unchanged vs. the same week a year earlier).
State Employment (February 2019, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted): Vs. January 2019: Increased in 2 states and was essentially unchanged in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Vs. February 2018: Grew in 22 states and was essentially unchanged in 28 states and the District of Columbia.
Wholesale Trade (January 2019, Merchant Wholesalers’ Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $669.9 billion (+1.2% vs. December 2018, +7.7% vs. January 2018). 

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current employer. No endorsements are implied.

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