KEY DATA: NAHB: 70 (up 2 points)/ NY Fed: -6.2 points; Orders: -11.4 points; Expectations: -0.6 point
IN A NUTSHELL: “The housing market is beginning to look a little like it did a decade ago.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The housing market continues to recover and in many metropolitan areas, prices are pretty much where they were at the peak of the housing bubble. Meanwhile, developers are feeling like things are really strong once again. The National Association of Home Builders’ Index rose in May to a level seen only in boom times. I am not saying construction is booming; only that builders feel that way. For the first five months of the year, the index averaged 68, a level that was exceeded only in 2005 and 1999, two economic bubble years. The present conditions and expectations indices are near record highs. Interestingly, though, traffic is good but hardly great. That reflects the reality that sales levels are no where near the peaks we had seen and will not likely be there anytime soon – if at all. I guess what you have to conclude is that builders feel real good about the industry, even if it is running at a lower pace than in the past.
Manufacturing has helped keep the economy moving forward, but the strength of this sector may be waning a touch. The New York Federal Reserve Bank’s Empire State Manufacturing Survey took a tumble in May. Overall activity slowed as orders and backlogs declined. Still, hiring remained solid and respondents were still pretty optimistic.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Most economists expect that second quarter growth will rebound from the weak gain recorded in the first part of the year. But it is not clear how strong it will be and what it will say about the state of the economy. Tomorrow we get housing starts and industrial production and if the NAHB and NY Fed surveys tell us anything about what is actually happening, starts should be good but production not so much. That would further muddle the economic picture. Even if second quarter GDP growth is in the 3% range, as I expect, the economy would have expanded during the first half of the year at a roughly 2% pace. In other words, the more things may change in other places, the more the economy remains the same. Yet investors seem to be assuming growth will stay at 3% for as long as the eye can see and that all the other things happening in the world just don’t matter. Aren’t rose-colored glasses wonderful? There is nothing at work that should cause growth this year to be much more than about 2.25%. I don’t know what that means for equity prices, but I do think it raises questions about earnings expectations for the rest of the year. Oh, well, I guess that’s why I am an economist and I don’t run money.