April Housing Starts and Industrial Production

KEY DATA: Starts: -2.6%; 1-Family: +0.4%; Permits: -2.5%; 1-Family: -4.5%/ IP: +1.0%; Manufacturing: +1.0%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The pick up in manufacturing activity comes at the right time as home construction seems to have hit a lull.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Watch what people do, not what they say. Yesterday, surveys indicated that housing was moving forward strongly but manufacturing may be slowing. At least that is what the respondents said. Well, today’s data indicate the exact opposite happened in April. First, home construction slowed. Housing starts fell, though the decline was driven by a slowdown in the always-volatile multi-family segment. Sharp reductions in building activity in the Northeast and South overwhelmed solid increases in the Midwest and West. Looking forward, permit requests were off as well. Since permit requests outpaced starts over the past three months – and were well above the April level – look for a pop in starts in May. That, however, will just bring us back to an average pace.

Industrial production jumped in April and the rise was broad based. Not only did we have a nice increase in utility production, but the energy sector rebounded significantly and manufacturing output surged. Eight of the eleven durable goods manufacturing segments and seven of the eight nondurable sectors posted gains. The biggest increases were in vehicles and petroleum. It is nice that the energy sector is growing rather than contracting sharply as it did last year. As for the pop in assembly rates, unless sales pick up, we are could see some shaving in output. There was also a large rise in the production of computers and business equipment, indicating firms may be investing again. That would be good news for growth this quarter.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The sharp increase in industrial activity is a clear sign that the first quarter sluggishness is behind us. But we have to be cautious in reading these numbers. March was a strange month and the April data have averaged out the ups and downs. What we need to see is consistently good numbers, not one bad and one good. A 3% or more second quarter will not indicate the economy is in off to the races. It will, however, make it possible we don’t have another sub-2% growth rate. My point is that the data are volatile and if the March and April numbers were switched, we probably would have two quarters both in the 2.25% range. Big deal. Given that investors seem to be turning a blind eye to any negative information but are celebrating anything that looks good, I suspect they will cheer the production report and skip the housing numbers. But they shouldn’t. The April starts number was almost 6% below the average for the first quarter and it will be hard to get above 3% growth if housing isn’t expanding. That is especially true given the less than stellar vehicle sales. I point all this out to make the point that I just don’t know where the earnings will come from to support the constant increase in equity prices. It is doubtful is will come from domestic activity. As for the Fed, it produces the industrial production report and the large increase adds to the belief that the next rate hike is coming very soon.