KEY DATA: IP: -0.6%; Manufacturing: +0.1%/ Home Builders Index: 56 (up 4 points)
IN A NUTSHELL: “Manufacturing is starting to come back and with developers pretty optimistic, the outlook for spring economic activity is becoming a lot brighter.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Spring is here and guess what? Builders have smiles on their faces once again. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index jumped in April. It is nearing levels that would be consistent with pretty strong home construction. Expectations about current and future sales were up sharply. I have little doubt that the warmer weather is heating things up. Don’t be surprised if the February housing start collapse is totally wiped out in March. I expect housing activity to get back to 2007 levels by the end of spring.
While April may be the month the economy flowers, March continues to growl. Industrial production fell sharply in March, but the major reason was a cut back in utility activity as the winter started to break and a major reduction in oil and gas production, which we all knew was coming. As for manufacturing, output did rise, but only modestly. But vehicle assembly rates have bounced back and business equipment production was up, so there seems to be some signs that conditions are firming. That said, the New York Fed’s manufacturing index tanked in early April, so we need to be cautious before we say that the industrial sector is getting back up to speed.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: We still have quite a few more March numbers before we get the spring data, so don’t expect the reports that are coming out to be great. The winter hurt but we just don’t know how much and we may have to wait about two more months before we have a clearer picture of the economy. That, of course, brings us to June, so it is looking like a rate hike that month is becoming unlikely – as much as I don’t want to admit that. While two great employment reports and an acceleration in wages could bring that month back into play, the Fed probably wants to soften up the beaches for a rate hike and there may not be time to do that. As for the markets, investors have earnings to deal with and rate hikes to put out of their minds, even if the Fed is highly likely to move within the next six months. Failing to plan for that is done at your own peril.