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.

Employers Slammed on the Brakes: March 4 – 8

The U.S. economy had its worst month for job creation in a year and a half in February. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 8.

#1Job creation slowed to a crawl in February. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nonfarm employers added a mere 20,000 workers to their payrolls in February, the fewest jobs added in a single month since September 2017 (then caused by hurricanes disrupting economic activity). Over the past three months, payroll gains have averaged 186,000. Private sector employers added 25,000 workers, split between a 57,000 increase in the service sector and a 32,000 job loss in the goods-producing side of the U.S. economy. Among the industries reporting job gains were professional/business services (+42,000), health/social assistance (+22,500), and wholesale trade (+10,900). Dragging down the payrolls report was the 31,000 jobs lost in construction (following a 53,000 gain in January) and an unchanged count of workers in leisure/hospitality following January’s 89,000 gain. The same report finds average hourly wages growing by 11 cents to $27.66 (up 3.4 percent over the past year) and average weekly earnings increasing by $1.02 to $951.50 (up 3.1 percent over the past year).

A separate survey of households paints a better employment picture, including showing that the unemployment rate declined by 2/10ths of a percentage point to 3.8 percent—the measure has stayed within a tight band between 3.7 percent and 4.0 percent over the past year. While 45,000 people left the labor market during the month, the labor force participation rate remained at 63.2 percent. Labor force participation among adults aged 25 to 54 lost a tenth of a percentage point to 82.5 percent, just off from its highest point since April 2010. The count of part-time workers seeking a full-time opportunity dropped to a post-recession low at 4.310 million while the broadest measure of labor underutilization (the “U-6” series) declined to its lowest point since 2001 at 7.3 percent.labor force participation 2008-18 030819

#2The trade deficit widened in 2018. The Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis report that export activity slowed by $3.9 billion in December to $264.9 billion (virtually unchanged from December 2017) while imports accelerated by $5.5 billion to $264.9 billion (+3.1 percent versus December 2017). This left the goods and services trade deficit at -$59.8 billion, its largest since 2008. The goods deficit grew by $9.0 billion to -$81.5 billion while the services surplus shrank by $0.5 billion to +$21.8 billion. The trade deficit for all of 2018 totaled -$621.0 billion, up 12.5 percent from 2017 and the equivalent to 3.0 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). The 2017 trade deficit of -$552.3 billion was the equivalent to 2.8 percent of that year’s GDP. Export activity grew $118.5 billion in 2018 to $1.672 trillion while imports were $2.563 trillion (up $292.2 billion from their 2017 total). 

#3The service sector expanded more robustly in February. The NMI, the headline index from the Institute for Supply Management’s Nonmanufacturing Report on Business, jumped three full points to a reading of 59.7. This was the NMI’s 109th straight month with a reading above 50.0, the threshold between an expanding and contracting service sector. Three of the NMI’s four components improved during the month: new orders (up 7.5 points), business activity/production (up 5.0 points), and supplier deliveries (+2.0 points). The component tracking employment shed 2.6 points during the month. All 18 nonmanufacturing sectors expanded during February, led by transportation/warehousing, management of companies/support services, and wholesale trade. While staying “most optimistic,” survey respondents were “concerned about the uncertainty of tariffs, capacity constraints and employment resources.”

#4Construction spending slowed in December. The Census Bureau places the seasonally adjusted annualized value of construction put into place at $1.293 trillion, representing a 0.6 percent drop from November but still a 1.6 percent advance from a year earlier. Private sector construction spending also slowed 0.6 percent in December to an annualized rate of $991.2 billion (+0.8 percent versus December 2018). Private residential construction spending slumped 1.4 percent while nonresidential spending edged up 0.4 percent. Public sector construction spending suffered a matching 0.6 percent drop during the month to an annualized $296.0 billion (+4.8 percent December 2017).

#5New home sales rebounded in December. The partial federal government shutdown delayed report on December new home sales found the annualized count of transactions grew 3.7 percent during the month to 621,000 units. While this was the best month for the Census Bureau data series since last May, new home sales remained 2.4 percent below the year-ago pace. Sales grew during the month in three of four Census regions during December, with the Midwest being the negative outlier. There were 344,000 new homes available for purchase at the end of December, up 3.0 percent for the month and 17.0 percent from December 2017 and the equivalent to a 6.6 month supply. The former was dragged down by declines in exports of petroleum/crude oil and aircraft while the latter blossomed because of increased imports of computers/accessories and consumer goods.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending March 2, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 223,000 (-3,000 vs. previous week; -7,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 226,250 (+0.7% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Monthly Treasury Statement (January 2019, Federal Government Budget Surplus/Deficit): +$8.7 billion. First 4 months of FY19: -$310.3 billion (76.6% larger than the deficit from the first 4 months of FY18).- New Home Starts (January 2019, Privately-Owned Housing Starts, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 1.230 million (+18.6% vs. December 2018, -7.8% vs. January 2018).
Productivity (Q4 2018, Nonfarm Labor Productivity, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): +1.9% vs. Q3 2018, +1.8% vs. Q4 2017.
Consumer Credit (January 2019, Outstanding Non-Real Estate Backed Debt, seasonally adjusted): $4.035 trillion (+$17.0 billion vs. December 2018, +5.0% vs. January 2018).
Beige Book

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

Home Sales Chilled (Again) in January: February 18 – 22

Home sales faltered again in early 2019. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending February 22.  

#1Sales of previously owned homes fell for the ninth time in ten months in January. The National Association of Realtors’ estimate of existing home sales dropped 1.2 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 4.94 million units. This left the count of transactions 8.5 percent below that of a year earlier to its lowest point since November 2015. Sales fell in three of four Census regions: West (-2.9 percent), Midwest (-2.5 percent), and South (-1.0 percent). Only the Northeast enjoyed a sales increase during the month (+2.9 percent). While still tight, the number of homes on the market rose 3.9 percent to 1.59 million units (+4.6 percent vs. January 2018), the equivalent to a 3.9 month supply. The median sales price of $247,500 represented a 2.8 percent increase from January 2018. The press release states NAR’s belief that home sales “have reached a cyclical low.”

#2Meanwhile, homebuilders’ sentiment rebounded in February. The Housing Market Index (HMI) from the National Association of Homebuilders added four points during the month to a seasonally adjusted 62. The HMI has been above a reading of 50—meaning a higher percentage of homebuilders view the housing market as “good” rather than “poor”—for 56 straight months. The HMI improved in the Midwest (55) and South (66) but lost traction in the Northeast (45) and West (67). Also moving forward in February were indices for sales of single-family homes (up three points to 67), expected sales over the next six months (up five points to 68), and traffic of prospective buyers (up four points to 48). The press release stated that “many builders are reporting positive expectations for the spring selling season.

#3Forward-looking economic indicators slipped in January. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) lost 1/10th of a point to a 111.3 (2016=100), as the measure has stayed within 1/10th of a point range over the past four months. Even with the recent stagnation, the LEI has risen 3.5 percent over the past year. The coincident economic index added 1/10th of a point, placing it 2.3 percent ahead of its year-ago mark. The lagging economic index grew by a half point to 106.7. The measure has risen 2.6 percent since January 2018. The Conference Board, in noting that the LEI “has now been flat essentially since October 2018, indicates economic growth “will likely decelerate to about 2 percent by the end of 2019.” (The press release also noted that the recently ended partial federal government shutdown resulted in three of the ten components to the LEI being unavailable for analysis).

#4Durable goods orders expanded in December. The Census Bureau estimates new orders for manufactured durable goods totaled $254.4 billion, up 1.2 percent for the month. As normal, aircraft orders were a major driver to the headline number—a 28.4 percent increase in orders for civilian aircraft resulted in a 3.3 percent gain in transportation goods (motor vehicle orders increased 2.1 percent). Net of transportation goods, core durable goods orders inched up by a mere 0.1 percent. Losing ground in December were orders for computers/electronics (-8.3 percent), communications equipment (-5.0 percent), machinery (-0.4 percent), and electrical equipment/appliances (-0.1 percent). Rising during the month were orders for fabricated metal products (+0.3 percent). Orders for civilian capital goods net of aircraft—a proxy of business investment—fell 0.7 percent during the month.

#5Agricultural prices grew in December. The Department of Agriculture reports that its index for prices received by farmers grew by 1.8 percent during the month to a reading of 89.9 (2011=100). Despite the increase during the month, the measure remained 2.4 percent below its year-ago mark. Crop prices jumped 4.2 percent, led by higher prices for vegetables/melons, feed grains, and grains/oilseed. Livestock prices slipped 0.4 percent in December, with dairy prices slumping 3.5 percent but poultry/egg prices surging 3.4 percent.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:Jobless Claims (week ending February 16, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 216,000 (-23,000 vs. previous week; -2,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 235,750 (+3.7% vs. the same week a year earlier)- FOMC Minutes

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