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.

Retailers and Manufacturers Started 2019 in Different Directions: March 11 – 15

Retail sales improved in January but manufacturing output struggled in February. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 15.  

#1Retail sales modestly rebounded in January. The Census Bureau estimates U.S. retail and food services sales grew 0.2 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted $504.4 billion. This compares favorably to December’s 1.6 percent sales slump (revised from a previously reported 1.2 percent drop) and places sales 2.3 percent ahead of January 2018 levels. Sales fell a sharp 2.4 percent at auto dealers/parts stores and 2.0 percent at gas stations. Net of sales at auto dealers/parts stores and gas stations, core retail sales jumped 1.2 percent following a 1.6 percent drop in December and have grown 3.2 percent since January 2018. Growing during the month were sales at sporting goods/hobby retailers (+4.8 percent), building material/garden stores (3.3 percent), health/personal care stores (+1.6 percent), grocery stores (+1.2 percent), general merchandisers (+0.8 percent), and restaurants/bars (+0.7 percent). Sales declined at stores focused on apparel (-1.3 percent), furniture (-1.2 percent), and electronics/appliances (-0.3 percent).

#2Manufacturing production dropped for the second straight month in February. The Federal Reserve reports the manufacturing output fell 0.4 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis, following a 0.5 percent drop in January. Durable goods production slipped 0.1 percent (matching the modest decline in motor vehicle production) while nondurable goods output declined 0.7 percent as production fell for petroleum/coal products, apparel, and printing. Overall industrial production increased 0.1 percent as the manufacturing slowdown was counterbalanced by increased utilities (+3.7 percent) and mining (+0.3 percent) output. Over the past year, manufacturing output has grown a modest 1.0 percent while overall industrial production has risen 3.5 percent. 

#3Employers continued struggling to fill open jobs during January. There were a seasonally adjusted 7.581 million open nonfarm jobs at the end of January, up 102,000 from December and 15.0 percent above year-ago levels. Further, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ count of open positions was well above the 6.535 million people who had reported being unemployed during the same month. Among the industries reporting large year-to-year percentage increases in job openings were wholesale trade (+32.5 percent), construction (+23.3 percent), health/social assistance (+21.0 percent), professional/business services (+19.5 percent), accommodation/food services (+19.1 percent), and financial activities (+15.3 percent). Lagging behind the growth in new job openings was hiring, which grew by 84,000 to 5.801 million workers. This was 5.0 percent ahead of the January 2018 pace of hiring. 5.550 million people left their jobs in January, up 81,000 for the month and 4.4 percent from a year earlier. Indicative of confident workers, 3.490 million quit their jobs voluntarily (+15.5 percent versus January 2018) while the count of people laid off—1.723 million—was 10.9 percent year-ago layoff activity

#4Inflation measures remained under control in February. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the Consumer Price Index (CPI) grew 0.2 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis during the month, its first increase since October. Pulling up the headline number were 0.4 percent gains for both food and energy. The latter included the first increase in gasoline prices since October (+1.5 percent). Net of food and energy, core CPI advanced 0.1 percent, its smallest increase since last August. While prices for shelter and apparel each grew 0.3 percent, falling were prices for medical care commodities (-1.0 percent), used cars/trucks (-0.7 percent), new vehicles (-0.2 percent), and transportation services (-0.1 percent). Over the past year, CPI has risen 1.5 percent while the core measure has a 12-month comparable of +2.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the Producer Price Index (PPI) for final demand grew for the first time in four months with a 0.1 percent seasonally adjusted increase in February, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The core measure of wholesale prices, which removes the impact of energy, food and trade services, also grew 0.1 percent for the month. Energy prices increased for only the third time in eight months with a 1.8 percent gain (including a 3.3 percent advance in wholesale gasoline prices). PPI for final demand food slumped 0.3 percent. PPI for final demand goods gained 0.4 percent while that for final demand services was unchanged. Final demand PPI has risen 1.9 percent, the first time since June 2017 in which the 12-month comparable has fallen under two percent. The core measure for wholesale prices has grown 2.3 percent over the past year.

#5Durable goods orders grew for a third straight month in January. The Census Bureau tells us that new orders for manufactured durable goods grew 0.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted $255.3 billion. Transportation goods orders rose 1.2 percent, with increases for civilian (+15.9 percent) and defense aircraft (+4.5 percent) and a 1.0 percent slowdown in motor vehicle orders. Net of transportation goods, durable goods orders slipped 0.1 percent. Rising were orders for computers (+7.6 percent), communications equipment (+3.8 percent), electrical equipment/appliances (+1.7 percent), and machinery (+1.4 percent). New orders for primary metals slumped 1.5 percent. New orders for civilian non-aircraft capital goods—a proxy for business investment—gained 0.8 percent.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending March 9, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 229,000 (+6,000 vs. previous week; +3,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 223,750 (+0.4% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Import Prices (February 2019, All Imports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.6% vs. January 2019, -1.3% vs. February 2018. Nonfuel Imports: Unchanged vs. January 2019, -0.6% vs. February 2018.
Export Prices (February 2019, All Exports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.6% vs. January 2019, +0.3% vs. February 2018. Nonagricultural Exports: +0.7% vs. January 2019, +0.3% vs. February 2018.
State Employment (January 2019, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted): Vs. December 2018: Payrolls grew in 13 states and were essentially unchanged in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Vs. January 2018: Payrolls grew in 26 states and were essentially unchanged 24 states and the District of Columbia.
New Home Sales (January 2019, New Homes Sold, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): 607,000 (-6.9% vs. December 2018, -4.1% vs. January 2018).
Business Inventories (December 2018, Manufacturers’ and Trade Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $1.995 trillion (+0.6% vs. November 2018, +4.8% vs. December 2017).
Small Business Optimism Index (February 2019, Index (1986=100), seasonally adjusted): 101.7 (vs. January 2019: 101.2, vs. February 2018: 107.6).
Construction Spending (January 2019, Value of Construction Put in Place, seasonally adjusted annualized rate): $1.279 trillion (+1.3% vs. December 2018, +0.3% vs. January 2018).
University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers (March 2019-preliminary, Index of Consumer Sentiment (100=1966Q1), seasonally adjusted): 97.8 (vs. February 2019: 93.8, vs. March 2018: 101.4).

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

GDP Growth Slowed in Q4, Was Solid for 2018: February 25 – March 1

GDP growth slowed during Q4 but was relatively healthy for all of 2018. Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending March 1. 

#1The economic expansion slowed a bit during the final three months of 2018. The first estimate of fourth-quarter 2018 gross domestic product (GDP) places economic growth at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of +2.6 percent, compared to gains of +4.2 percent and +3.4 percent in Q2 and Q3, respectively. GDP has expanded 3.1 percent since Q4 2017. The Bureau of Economic Analysis also reports that GDP grew 2.9 percent for all of 2018, an improvement over gains of +1.6 percent and +2.2 percent in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Positive contributors to Q4 GDP growth were (in decreasing order) personal consumption expenditures, nonresidential fixed investment (i.e., business investment), exports, the change in private inventories, and government spending. Dragging down Q4 GDP were imports and residential fixed investment (i.e., housing). The BEA will update its Q4 GDP estimate twice over the next two months.GDP Growth 2015-2018 03019

#2Personal spending slumped in December, as had personal income in January. The Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that real personal consumption expenditures (PCE) fell 0.6 percent in December. Real spending on goods slumped 1.4 percent during the month, pulled down by declines for durable and nondurable goods of -1.9 percent and -1.2 percent, respectively. The reduction in spending on services was at a more modest -0.2 percent. Real personal disposable income jumped 1.0 percent in December, with gains for nominal disposable income and nominal personal income growing 1.0 percent the same month. (“Real” measures control for inflation while “nominal” measures do not.) The same report also included January nominal income data, but the story was not as good as nominal personal income slipped 0.1 percent (its first drop since November 2015) while nominal disposable income declined 0.2 percent. Delayed data collection due to the partial federal government shutdown prevented the publication of January data of real disposable income and personal consumption expenditures.

#3Manufacturing activity grew at a slower rate in February. The PMI, the headline index from the Institute for Supply Management’s Manufacturing Report on Business, lost 2.4 points during the month to a reading of 54.2. Despite the PMI dropping to its lowest point since November 2016, the measure has been above a reading of 50.0 for 30 straight months, indicative of an expanding manufacturing sector. Four of five PMI components declined in February: production (-5.7 points), employment (-3.2 points), new orders (-2.7 points), and supplier deliveries (-1.3 points). The index tracking inventories added 6/10ths of a point during the month. Sixteen of 18 tracked manufacturing sector expanded in February, led by printing, textile mills, and computer/electronics.

#4Housing starts plummeted in December. The Census Bureau estimates housing starts dropped 11.2 percent during the month to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate (SAAR) of 1.078 million units. This was 10.9 percent under the year-ago pace of starts. Starts of multi-family units (five or more units) slumped 22.0 percent while single-family home starts slowed 6.7 percent. Starts fell in three of four Census regions during December but held steady in the Northeast. Looking towards the future, the number of issued building permits edged up 0.3 percent to 1.326 million (SAAR), an increase of 0.5 percent from a year earlier. The number of permits issued to build single-family homes dropped 2.2 percent while that for multi-family units of at least five units jumped 5.7 percent. The annualized rate of completed homes slowed 2.7 percent to 1.097 million, an 8.4 percent decline from December 2017.

#5Consumer sentiment rebounded in February. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence jumped by 9.7 points during the month to a seasonally adjusted 131.4 (1985=100), its first increase in four months. Much of the gain came from an improved outlook for near-future business conditions as the expectations index surged a full 14 points to 103.4. The current conditions measure added 3.3 points to 173.5. 41.2 percent of surveyed consumers saw current business conditions as “good” compared to just 10.8 percent saying there were “bad.” Similarly, 46.1 percent of survey respondents viewed jobs as being “plentiful” versus 11.8 percent of them as being “hard to get.”

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment grew to a seasonally adjusted reading of 93.8 (1966Q1=100), up 2.6 points for the month but still below the year-ago reading of 99.7. The present conditions index edged down by 3/10ths of a point to 84.4 (February 2018: 90.0) while the expectations index improved by 4.5 points to 84.4 (February 2018: 90.0). The press release said that the survey data suggests real personal spending will grow 2.6 percent for all of 2019, which “will mean that the expansion is expected to set a new record length by mid-year.

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending February 23, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 225,000 (+8,000 vs. previous week; +8,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 229,000 (+2.7% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Chicago Fed National Activity Index (January 2019, Index (0.00=U.S. Expanding at its Historical Average): -0.43 (vs. December 2018: +0.05; January 2018: -0.29).
Factory Orders (December 2018, New Orders for Manufactured Goods, seasonally adjusted): $499.9 billion (+0.1% vs. November 2018, +2.4% vs. December 2017).
Pending Home Sales (January 2019, Index (100=2001), seasonally adjusted): 103.2 (December 2018: 98.7; January 2018: 105.6).
FHFA House Price Index (December 2018, Purchase-Only Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.3% vs. November 2018, +5.6% vs. December 2017.
Case-Shiller Home Price Index (December 2018, 20-City Index, seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. November 2018, +4.2% vs. December 2017.
Agricultural Prices (January 2019, Prices Received by Farmers (Index: 2011=100)): -4.5% vs. December 2018, -0.7% vs. January 2018.

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