Fed Cuts Again, Unclear on Next Steps: September 16 – 20

The Federal Reserve cuts its short-term interest rate target and sent a mixed message on what may be next. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending September 20.

#1A divided Fed lowered its short-term interest rate target. In the statement released following this past week’s meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) noted that the U.S. economy was “rising at a moderate rate,” the “labor market remains strong,” and household spending was robust. But the statement also indicated that both business investment and exports “have weakened” and inflation remains below the Fed’s two-percent target. As a result, the FOMC voted to cut the fed funds target rate by a quarter-percent point to a range of 1.75 percent and 2.00 percent because “of the implications of global developments for the economic outlook as well as muted inflation pressures.” The decision was not unanimous: two voting members wanted to leave the fed funds target rate unchanged while one member sought a half-point rate cut.

Looking at economic forecasts by FOMC members released in conjunction with the policy statement, it is clear that there is even more disagreement on what is next. Seven voting members anticipate at least one more rate cut before the end of 2019, while five members expect this past week’s rate cut would be the final cut of the year and five had not expected even this rate cut. The same forecasts have the U.S. economy expanding at 2.0 percent next year with an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent and inflation just below the Fed’s target at 1.9 percent.FOMC Fed Funds Forecast 092019

#2Forward-looking economic measures suggest slowing growth. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) held steady in August at a reading of 112.1, following a 4/10ths of a point increase during the prior month. The LEI has grown a modest 1.1 percent over the past year. Five of the ten LEI components made positive contributions, led by housing building permits. The coincident index added 3/10ths of a point to 106.4 (+1.6 percent versus August 2018). All four components of the coincident index made positive contributions, led by industrial production. The lagging index shed 3/10ths of a point to 108.2 (+3.0 percent versus August 2018) as only three of seven components made a positive contribution. The press release said that the leading index was “consistent with a slow but still expanding economy, which has been primarily driven by strong consumer spending and robust job growth.”

#3Manufacturing production rebounded in August. The Federal Reserve tells us that manufacturing output grew a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent during the month following a 0.4 percent pullback in July. Output for durable and nondurable goods each rose 0.5 percent, with the former boosted by higher than one-percent gains for machinery, primary metals, and nonmetallic mineral goods. Plastics/rubber products and chemicals lifted the nondurables figure. Overall industrial production grew 0.6 percent in August after having had slipped 0.1 percent during the prior month. Mining output jumped 1.4 percent following a 1.5 percent decline in July (caused by a temporary slowdown in oil extraction resulting from Hurricane Barry). Production at utilities grew 0.6 percent in August. Even with its expansion in August, manufacturing output was 0.4 percent smaller than that of a year earlier while the 12-month comparable for overall industrial production was a modest +0.4 percent.

#4Existing home sales edged up in August. Sales of previously owned homes gained 1.3 percent in August to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 5.49 million units (up 2.6 percent from August 2018). The National Association of Realtors’ measure grew in three of four Census regions—Northeast (+7.6 percent), Midwest (+3.1 percent), and South (+0.9 percent)—but fell 3.4 percent in the West. Home sales in four Census regions had positive 12-month comparables. Inventories of unsold homes remained tight, falling 2.1 percent during the month to 1.86 million houses (-2.6 percent versus August 2018). This was the equivalent to a 4.1 month supply. The median sales price has grown 4.7 percent over the past year to $278,200. The press release credits the recent drop in mortgage interest rates for the rise in home sales.

#5Housing starts bloomed in August. The Census Bureau reports that housing starts rose 12.3 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.215 million units. This left the measure 6.6 percent ahead of its year-ago mark. Single-family home starts increased 4.4 percent while those of multi-family units surged 30.9 percent. Leading towards the future, the number of issued housing permits gained 7.7 percent in August to an annualized 1.419 million permits (+12.0 percent versus August 2018). The annualized count of permits for single-family homes grew 4.5 percent during the month while that for homes with five or more units jumped 14.9 percent. Housing completions gained 2.4 percent in August to an annualized 1.294 million homes, up 5.0 percent from a year earlier.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending September 14, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 208,000 (+6,000 vs. previous week; -4,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 212,250 (+0.5% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Housing Market Index (September 2019, Index (>50 = ”Good” housing market), seasonally adjusted): 68 (vs. August 2019: 67, vs. September 2018: 67).
State Employment (August 2019, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted):  vs. July 2019: Grew in 5 states, Decreased in 1 state, and Unchanged in 44 states and the District of Columbia.  Vs. August 2018: Grew in 26 states and Unchanged in 34 states and the District of Columbia.
Treasury International Capital (July 2019, Net Foreign Purchases of Domestic Securities, not seasonally adjusted): +$72.3 billion (vs. June 2019: +$65.3 billion, vs. July 2018: +$34.5 billion).

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

Leading Indicators Suggest Modest Growth: August 19 – 23

Leading economic measures rebounded in July. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending August 23.

#1Forward-looking economic indicators brightened a bit in July. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) jumped by a half-point to a reading of 112.2. This followed two monthly declines and left the LEI up a somewhat modest 1.6 percent over the past year. Only five of the LEI’s ten components made positive contributions to the index, led by housing building permits and jobless claims. A warning sign: manufacturing-related components pulled down the LEI. The coincident index added 2/10ths of a point to 106.2, up 1.8 percent from July 2018. Three of four coincident index components made positive contributions, led by nonfarm payrolls. The lagging index jumped by 7/10ths of a point to 108.5, leaving the measure up 3.5 percent over the past year. Four of seven lagging index components made positive contributions, led by the average duration of unemployment. The press release said the U.S. economy would likely expand “at a moderate pace” during the second half of 2019.

#2Existing sales improved in July. Sales of previously owned homes gained 2.5 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 5.42 million units. The National Association of Realtors’ measure was 0.6 percent ahead of its year-ago mark. Sales improved in three Census regions—the West, South, and Midwest—when compared to June but were only up in the South and Midwest when compared to a year earlier. Inventories tightened in July as the count of homes on the market slipped 1.6 percent to 1.89 million units. This was the equivalent to a 4.2 month supply. The median sales price of homes sold has risen 4.3 percent over the past year to $280,800.

#3But sales of new homes fell during the same month. The Census Bureau estimates new home sales slumped 12.8 percent in July to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 635,000 units. This placed the annualized sales pace 4.3 percent below that of July 2018. New home sales fell in three of four Census regions during the month, with Northeast being the exception. Compared to a year earlier, however, sales have grown in the West, South, and Northeast. There was a 6.4 month supply of new homes on the market at the end of July with an inventory of 337,000 units (+1.2 percent versus June 2019 and +7.3 percent versus July 2018).

#4Jobless claims remained near multidecade lows in mid-August. The Department of Labor reports that the seasonally adjusted count of first-time claims made for unemployment insurance benefits dropped by 15,000 to 209,000. This was 2.3 percent below that of a year earlier and continued a remarkable streak for the proxy of layoff activity of sub-300,000 claims going back five years (except for a handful of weeks). The 4-week moving average of first-time claims edged up by 500 to 214,500 (-0.7 percent versus the same week a year earlier). 1,704,365 people were receiving some form of unemployment insurance during the week ending August 3rd, essentially matching the count from the same week a year earlier.

#5Internet retailers continued to grab market share during Q2. The Census Bureau indicates that sales at U.S. e-commerce retailers grew 4.2 percent during the three months from April to June to a seasonally adjusted $146.2 billion. Total retail sales were $1.362 trillion over the same period (up only 1.6 percent from the prior quarter), meaning internet retailers owned 10.7 percent of all sales during the quarter. E-commerce sales have risen 13.3 percent over the past year with the four-quarter comparable for all retail sales at 3.2 percent.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
FOMC Minutes

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

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.