Economic Data Sends Mixed Messages: November 18 – 22

While leading indicators suggest economic weakness, both housing and sentiment gained momentum. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending November 22.

#1Forward-looking economic indicators remained sluggish in October. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) pulled back for a third consecutive month with a 1/10th of a point decline to 111.7 (2016=100). The LEI has remained within a small range over the past year. Only five of ten LEI components made positive contributions, led by building permits while manufacturing index components dragged down the measure. The coincident index held steady at a reading of 106.5, up 1.4 percent from a year earlier. Three of four coincident index components made positive contributions, led by personal income. The lagging index inched up 1/10th of a point to a reading of 108.1, with three of seven index components making a positive contribution (led by the length of unemployment). The press release says the results suggest “the economy will end the year on a weak note, at just below two percent growth.”

#2Previously home sales bounced back in October. Existing home sales, as measured by the National Association of Realtors, increased 1.9 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 5.46 million units. Sales expanded in the South (+4.4 percent) and Midwest (+1.6 percent) but slowed in the Northeast (-1.4 percent) and West (-0.9 percent). Sales have risen 4.6 percent over the past year, with three of four Census regions enjoying positive 12-month comparables. Sales matched that of a year earlier in the Northeast. The supply of homes tightened further, falling 2.7 percent to 1.77 million units, the equivalent to a 3.9 month supply. The median sales price of $270,900 was up 6.2 percent from a year earlier. The press release attributes the improvement in sales to “[h]istorically-low interest rates, continuing job expansion, higher weekly earnings and low mortgage rates.”

#3Housing starts rebounded in October. The Census Bureau reports that housing starts gained 3.8 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.314 million units. Starts were 8.5 percent ahead of their year-ago mark. Single-family home starts grew 2.0 percent in October while those of multi-family units rose 6.5 percent. Permit activity presents a positive outlook—the number of issues permits increased 5.0 percent during the month to an annualized 1.391 million permits. This was up 14.1 percent from a year earlier. The annualized count of completed homes surged 10.3 percent in October to 1.256 million homes (+12.4 percent versus October 2019).

#4Sentiment among homebuilders remained solid in November. The National Association of Home Builders’ Housing Market Index (HMI) came in at a seasonally adjusted reading of 70. The measure was off a point from October but up ten points from a year earlier. Further, the HMI has been above a reading of 50—indicative of more homebuilders seeing the housing market as “good” as opposed to being “poor”—for 65 straight months. The HMI grew three in four Census regions: Northeast (up three points to 63), West (up two points to 85), and Midwest (up a point to Midwest). The HMI shed two points in the South to a reading of 74. The press release notes that builders report “ongoing positive conditions,” boosted by low interest rates and a robust labor market.

#5Consumer confidence rose to its highest level since the summer. The University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment added 1.3 points in November to a seasonally adjusted reading of 96.8 (1966Q1=100). Even with the increase, the measure was off 7/10ths of a point from a year earlier. While the current conditions index shed 1.6 points during the month to 111.6 (November 2018: 111.6), the expectations index improved by 3.1 points to 87.3 (November 2018: 88.1). The press release points out that the headline index has been above a reading of 95.0 in 30 of the past 35 months, a show of strength not seen since a period between 1998 and 2000.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending November 16, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 227,000 (Unchanged vs. previous week; +3,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 221,000 (+0.1% vs. the same week a year earlier).
State Employment (October 2019, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted): vs. September 2019: up in 4 states, down in 1 state, and essentially unchanged in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Vs. October 2018: Up in 27 states and essentially unchanged in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
Treasury International Capital Flows (September 2019, Net Foreign Purchases of Domestic Securities, not seasonally adjusted): +15.4 billion (vs. August 2019: -$42.0 billion, vs. September 2018: +$8.5 billion.
FOMC Minutes

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

Hitting More Speed Bumps: October 14 – 18

Last week’s data characterize an economy without much forward momentum. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending October 18.

#1Retail sales sputtered in September. The Census Bureau places U.S. retail and food services at a seasonally adjusted $525.6 billion down 0.3 percent for the month but 4.1 percent ahead from a year earlier. This followed sales jumping 0.6 percent during August. Sales fell 0.9 percent at auto dealers and parts stores and decreased 0.7 percent at gas stations (as gas prices mellowed). Net of auto dealers/parts stores and gas stations, core retail sales held steady in September and were up 4.5 percent from a year earlier. Sales grew during the month at stores focused on apparel (+1.3 percent), health/personal care (+0.6 percent), and furniture (+0.6 percent). Sales declined at department stores (-1.4 percent), building materials/garden retailers (-1.0 percent), grocery stores (-0.1 percent), and sporting goods/hobby retailers (-0.1 percent).

#2Manufacturing output dropped in September. The Federal Reserve reports that manufacturing production slowed by a half-percentage point on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month, taking back most of August’s 0.6 percent gain. Production of durable goods fell 0.7 percent (hurt by the now tentatively settled GM strike) while nondurables output suffered a smaller 0.2 percent drop. Manufacturing production was 0.9 percent below year-ago levels. Overall industrial production fell 0.4 percent during the month and was 0.1 percent under that of a year earlier. Mining output slumped 1.3 percent as crude oil extraction and well drilling slowed. Production at utilities bloomed 1.4 percent as warm weather increased electricity demand. 

#3Forward-looking economic indicators suggest weakness in the U.S. economy. The Conference Board’s Leading Economic Index (LEI) shed 1/10th of a point during September to a reading of 111.9 (2016=100). This left the LEI up a mere 0.4 percent for the past 12 months. Five of ten LEI improved during the month, led by stock prices, but measures tied to manufacturing orders, building permits, and the interest rate spread weighed on the measure. The coincident index held steady during the month at 106.4, up 1.5 percent from September 2018. Three of four coincident index components improved during the month, led by nonfarm payrolls. The lagging index added 1/10th of a point to 108.3, leaving the measure 3.2 percent ahead of its year-ago mark, as three of seven components advanced in September. The press release noted that “[t]he LEI reflects uncertainty in the outlook and falling business expectations” and predicts slow growth into 2020.

#4 Housing starts slowed in September. The Census Bureau estimates housing starts dropped 9.4 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.256 million. Even with the decline, starts remained 1.6 percent ahead of the year-ago pace. The slump was on the multi-family unit side, where starts plummeted 28.3 percent. Single-family home starts grew 0.3 percent in September for its fourth straight monthly increase. Looking towards the future, the annualized count of issued housing permits fell 2.7 percent during the month to 1.387 million, although permits for single-family homes inched up 0.8 percent. Housing completions slumped 9.7 percent during the month to an annualized 1.139 million units.

#5…But homebuilders grew more confident in October. The National Association of Homebuilder’s Housing Market Index (HMI) added three points in October to a seasonally adjusted reading of 71, its highest mark since February 2018. The HMI has remained above a reading of 50—indicative of more homebuilders seeing the housing market as “good” versus being “poor”—for 64 consecutive months. The HMI rose in the South and West, but lost ground in the Northeast and Midwest. Rising during October were HMI components for current sales of single-family homes (up three points to 78), expected sales (up six points to 76), and traffic of prospective buyers (up four points to 54). The press release linked recent improvements in sentiment to “low mortgage rates, solid job growth and a reduction in new home inventory.”

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending October 12, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 214,000 (+4,000 vs. previous week; -1,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 214,750 (+0.2% vs. the same week a year earlier).
State Employment (September 2019, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted): Vs. August 2019: Payrolls grew in 3 states, decreased in 2 states, and essentially remained the same in 45 states and the District of Columbia. Vs. September 2018: Payrolls grew in 27 states and essentially remained the same in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
Business Inventories (August 2019, Manufacturers’ and Trade Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $2.042 trillion (unchanged vs. July 2019, +4.2% vs. August 2018).
Treasury International Capital Flows (August 2019, Net Foreign Purchases of Domestic Securities, not seasonally adjusted): -$41.9 billion (vs. July 2019: +$72.2 billion, vs. August 2018: +$77.1 billion).
Beige Book

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

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.