A Signal Change: June 17 – 21

The Fed sees increased business conditions uncertainty. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending June 21.

#1The Fed held still but sent a more dovish signal. The statement released after this past week’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) noted that the U.S. economy was growing at a “moderate rate,” the labor market was “strong,” and that consumer spending had “picked up.” But the committee also saw business investment as being “soft” and that core inflation was remaining below its two-percent target rate. As a result, the FOMC voted to maintain the fed funds target rate at a range between 2.25 and 2.50 percent (one voting member desired a rate cut). Further, the statement turned dovish with language saying that uncertainties “have increased. Nevertheless, the committee believed “sustained expansion of economic activity, strong labor market conditions, and inflation near the Committee’s symmetric 2 percent objective as the most likely outcomes.” Notable in the economic projections released in conjunction with the policy statement was that eight of the 17 FOMC participants expects one or two quarter-point rate cuts before 2019 ends. Only one participant anticipates a rate bump in 2019. Further, seven FOMC participants have the fed funds target rate below the current range into 2021.FOMC Projections June 2019 062119

#2Forward-looking economic indicators suggest business activity mellowed in May. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) held steady at 118.1 for the month and has risen by only a half point since last December. Just five of the LEI’s ten components made a positive contribution to the measure, led by consumers’ expectations for business conditions. The coincident index added 2/10ths of a point to 105.9, up a mere 3/10ths of a point since last December. All four coincident index components made positive contributions to the measure. The lagging index pulled back by 2/10ths of a point to 107.0 (up 7/10ths of a point to 106.3), with only one of seven components improving during May (the ratio of consumer installment credit outstanding to personal income). The press release noted that the LEI’s reading “clearly points to a moderation in growth towards 2 percent by year end.”

#3Existing home sales grew for the first time in three months in May. Sales of previously owned homes increased 2.5 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 5.34 million units. Even with the gain, the National Association of Realtors’ measure of existing home sales was 1.1 percent under its year-ago pace. Sales increased in all four Census regions, led by increases of 4.7 percent and 3.4 percent in the Northeast and Midwest, respectively. The only region with a favorable 12-month comparable, however, was the South with a 1.3 percent gain. Inventories of unsold homes expanded to their largest level since last July to 1.92 million units (+4.9 percent versus April 2019 and +2.7 percent versus May 2018) but remained at a tight 4.3 month supply. The press release stated that “[t]he purchasing power to buy a home has been bolstered by falling mortgage rates, and buyers are responding.”

#4Starts of single-family homes slowed in May. The Census Bureau tells us housing starts slipped 0.9 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted 1.269 million units, representing a 4.7 percent drop from a year earlier. While starts of multi-family units (e.g., condos) jumped 13.8 percent on both a month-to-month and year-to-year basis, they dropped for single-family homes 6.4 percent versus April 2019 and 12.5 percent versus May 2018. Looking towards future activity, permitting activity inched up during May as the annualized count of issued building permits grew 0.5 percent to 1.294 million permits (-1.5 percent versus May 2018). Permits for single-family homes rose 3.7 percent but fell a matching 3.7 percent for permits of homes with five or more units. Housing completions slumped 9.5 percent during the month to an annualized 1.213 million units, a 2.8 percent decline from a year earlier

#5Only one state enjoyed significant jobs growth in May. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nonfarm payrolls grew at a statistically significant rate in only Washington state during the month while remaining “essentially” unchanged in the other 49 states and the District of Columbia. (Note a few weeks earlier, the BLS reported that nonfarm payrolls grew by a relatively modest 75,000 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis during May.) Over the past year, nonfarm payrolls have increased in 24 states, led by Texas (+286,300), California (+282,700), and Florida (+214,500).

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending June 15, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 216,000 (-6,000 vs. previous week; -3,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 218,750 (-0.5% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Housing Market Index (June 2019, Index (>50=More Homebuilders View Housing Market as “Good” than “Bad,” seasonally adjusted): 64 (May 2019: 66, June 2018: 68).
Treasury International Capital Flows (April 2019, Net Foreign Purchases of U.S. Securities, not seasonally adjusted): +$36.4 billion (March 2019: -$27.8 billion, April 2018: +$22.6 billion).

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

Hiring and Consumer Spending Bloomed This Spring: April 29 – May 3

The labor market continued to create jobs in April. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending May 3.

#1Hiring accelerated while the unemployment rate fell to a 50-year low in April. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates nonfarm employers added a seasonally adjusted 263,000 workers during the month. This was the most jobs added since January and was above the average 213,000 monthly gain over the past year. Private employer payrolls expanded by 236,000, split by 202,000 jobs in the service sector and 34,000 in the goods-producing side of the economy. Industries with sizable payroll gains included professional/business services (+76,000), health care/social assistance (+52,600), leisure/hospitality (+34,000), and construction (+33,000). Hourly earnings averaged $27.77 (+3.2 percent versus April 2018) while mean weekly earnings have risen 2.9 percent over the past year to $955.29.

The separate household survey finds the unemployment falling to its lowest point since December 1969 at 3.6 percent. Some of the drop in the unemployment rate reflects the impact of the labor force shrinking by 490,000 people. The typical length of unemployment narrowed by 2/10ths of a week to 9.4 weeks (April 2018: 9.8 weeks) while the count of “involuntary” part-time workers grew by 155,000 to 4.654 million (April 2018: 4.952 million). Finally, the broadest measure of labor underutilization—the U-6 series—remained at its post-recession low of 7.3 percent.

#2Personal spending enjoyed a spurt in March. Real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) rose 0.9 percent during the month, following smaller 0.3 percent and 0.1 percent increases in January and February, respectively. The Bureau of Economic Analysis indicates spending on goods jumped 1.4 percent, led by strong gains for both durable (+2.9 percent) and nondurable (+0.8 percent) goods, while services spending had a more modest 0.3 percent bump. Without controlling for prices, nominal PCE swelled 0.9 percent. The higher expenditures occurred despite a modest increase in nominal personal income (+0.1 percent). Nominal disposable income was unchanged for the month while, after adjusted for price variations, real disposable income contracted 0.2 percent. As a result, the savings rate narrowed by 8/10ths of a percentage point to +6.5 percent. Over the past year, real personal spending has risen 2.9 percent while real disposable income has grown 2.3 percent. The PCE deflator (a measure of inflation) had grown 2.0 percent over the past year, while the core measure (which nets out energy and food) had increased 1.8 percent. The latter was below the Federal Reserve’s two-percent interest rate target. 

#3With inflation tracking below the target, the Fed held firm (as expected). The policy statement released following the week’s Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) noted the U.S. economy “rose at a solid rate” and that the labor market “remains strong.” But it also warned that core inflation had “declined and [was] running below two percent.” As a result, the FOMC voting members voted unanimously to keep the fed funds target at a range between 2.25 and 2.50 percent. The statement also emphasized that it would “patient” before it makes a move to raise or lower the short-term interest rate target in the future.

#4Purchasing managers signal a slightly slower growth rate in economic activity in April. The Institute for Supply Management’s PMI, the headline index from its Manufacturing Report on Business, lost 2.5 points during the month to a reading of 52.8. Even though this was the PMI’s lowest reading since October 2016, this was the 32nd straight month in which the measure indicated an expanding manufacturing sector. Three of the five PMI lost ground from their March readings: new orders, employment, and production. Showing improvements were indicators measuring inventories and supplier deliveries. Thirteen of 18 manufacturing industries expanded during the month, led by textiles and electrical equipment/appliances.

The ISM’s measure for activity in the nonmanufacturing side of the economy pulled back by 6/10ths of a point to 55.5, the NMI’s lowest reading since August 2017 but its 111th month above a reading of 50.0. Just a single component of the NMI improved from its March reading—business activity/production—while the other three declined in April: employment, supplier deliveries, and new orders. Fifteen of 18 tracked nonmanufacturing industries grew during April, led by transportation/warehousing, professional/scientific/technical services, and construction. The press release noted that survey respondents were “still mostly optimistic about overall business conditions, but concerns remain about employment resources.”

#5Meanwhile, factory orders rebounded in March. The Census Bureau reports that new orders for manufactured goods jumped 1.9 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted $508.2 billion, following a 0.3 percent drop in February and holding steady in January. Orders for transportation goods rose 7.0 percent, boosted by gains for civilian aircraft (+31.0 percent), defense aircraft (+17.7 percent), and motor vehicles (+1.5 percent). Net of transportation goods, new factory orders increased a still-robust 0.8 percent, following a 0.3 percent gain in February. Durable goods orders jumped 2.6 percent while nondurable goods rose 1.1 percent. Less favorable was data on new orders for nondefense, non-aircraft capital goods—a proxy for business investment—which held steady in March after gains of 1.0 percent and 0.3 percent in January and February, respectively.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending April 27, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 230,000 Unchanged vs. previous week; +17,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 212,500 (-3.1% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Conference Board Consumer Confidence (April 2019, Index (1985=100), seasonally adjusted): 129.2 (vs. March 2019: 124.2.
Construction Spending (March 2019, Value of Construction Put in Place, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): $1.282 trillion (-0.9% vs. vs. February 2019, -0.8% vs. March 2018).
Pending Home Sales (March 2019, Index (2001=100), seasonally adjusted): 105.8 (+3.8% vs. February 2019, -1.2% vs. March 2018).
Case-Shiller Home Price Index (February 2019, 20-City Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. January 2019, +3.0% vs. February 2018.
Productivity (2019Q1, Labor Productivity, seasonally adjusted): +3.6% vs. 2018Q4, +2.4% vs. 2018Q1.
Agricultural Prices (March 2019, Prices Received by Farmer): +2.8% vs. February 2019, -3.4% vs. March 2018 

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

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.