A Bright Outlook for 2020 (At Least So Far): February 17 – 21

Signs indicate the economic expansion should continue this year. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending February 21.

#1Forward-looking economic data improved in January. The Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) rose by 9/10ths of a point during the month to a reading 112.1 (2016=100). This left the Conference Board measure up 0.9 percent from a year earlier (reflecting the general weakness in the LEI over most of the past year). Eight of ten LEI components made positive contributions, led by jobless claims, building permits, and stock prices. The coincident index added 1/10th of a point to a reading of 107.3 (+1.1 percent versus January 2019), with three of four components making positive contributions (led by nonfarm payrolls). The lagging index held steady at 108.7 (+1.7 percent versus January 2019), with three of seven components making a positive contribution. The press release said the results were consistent with a two percent GDP growth rate, although “the COVID-19 outbreak may impact manufacturing supply chains in the U.S. in the coming months.”

#2Tight supplies continued to constrain home sales. The National Association of Realtors tells us that existing home sales declined 1.3 percent in January to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 5.46 million units. Home sales were 9.6 percent above their year-ago sales pace. Sales grew during the month in the Midwest (+2.4 percent) and South (+0.4 percent), held steady in the Northeast, and slumped in the West (-9.4 percent). While inventories of unsold homes increased 2.2 percent to 1.42 million units, they were 10.7 percent below year-ago levels and represented a mere 3.1 month supply. As a result, the median sales price of $266,300 was up 6.8 percent from a year earlier. 

#3Housing starts slowed in January while permitting activity rose. The Census Bureau finds starts of privately-owned homes declined 3.6 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted rate of 1.567 million units. Even with the drop, starts were a robust 21.4 percent ahead of their year-ago pace. Starts of single-family homes fell 5.9 percent while those for buildings of at least five units gained 3.0 percent. Looking towards the future, the annualized rate of issued building permits grew to an almost 13-year high at 1.551 million permits, up 9.2 percent for the month, and 17.9 percent from a year earlier. Versus a year earlier, permitting for single-family and multi-family units were up 20.2 percent and 16.0 percent, respectively. Completions slowed 3.3 percent to an annualized 1.280 million homes (+1.5 percent versus January 2019). 

#4Homebuilder sentiment slipped in February. The National Association of Home Builders’ Housing Market Index (HMI) lost a point during the month to a seasonally adjusted reading of 74. This was the 68th straight month in which the HMI was above a reading of 50, indicative of more homebuilders’ viewing the housing market as being “good” versus being “poor.” The HMI grew in the Northeast and South but lost ground in both the Midwest and West. Shedding a single point each were measures for single-family home sales (80), expected sales (79), and traffic of prospective buyers (57). The press release noted that “[s]teady job growth, rising wages, and low-interest rates are fueling demand” but that higher costs were weighing on builders.

#5Trade services led to a rise in wholesale prices in January. The Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand rose a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent during the month, its largest single-month increase in 15 months. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 90 percent of the rise came from the 0.7 percent jump in services prices, with much of the increase from higher margins at retailers focused on apparel, jewelry, footwear, and accessories. Trade services, reflecting retailer and wholesaler margins, jumped 1.2 percent. PPI for final demand goods grew by a more modest 0.1 percent. This reflects a 0.2 percent increase in foods PPI, a 0.7 percent decline energy wholesale prices, and a 0.3 percent bounce in core PPI. Wholesale prices have grown 2.1 percent over the past year, while the core measure (net of food, energy, and trade services) has advanced 1.5 percent.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending February 15, 2020, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 210,000 (+4,000 vs. previous week; -3,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 209,000, -8.9% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Treasury International Capital (December 2019, Net Foreign Purchases of U.S. Securities, not seasonally adjusted): +$60.7 billion (vs. November 2019: +$8.1 billion, vs. December 2018: -$87.7 billion).
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