May Housing Starts and June Preliminary Consumer Confidence

KEY DATA: Starts: -5.5%; 1-family: -3.9%; Permits: -4.9%; 1-Family: -1.9%/ Confidence: down 2.6 points

IN A NUTSHELL: “The downward trend in home construction does not bode well for growth either this quarter or this year.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Business leaders and owners, whether they are involved with small or big businesses, are exuberant. But the optimism doesn’t seem to be translating into surging economic activity. The latest signal that the economy is bumping along comes from the home construction numbers. Housing tarts fell sharply in May, with both single-family and multi-family activity declining. This was the third consecutive decline in activity. There were big reductions in home building in the Midwest and South, while conditions were flat in the Northeast. Only the West posted a gain, and it wasn’t anything great. The level of starts is the second lowest over the past eighteen months. While permit requests are falling as well, they are still running a little above starts, so we might see some improvement in construction in the next couple of months. Still, don’t expect the rate to be anything great.

Consumer confidence continues to fade. The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment index fell fairly sharply in the first part of June. Both the current conditions and expectations components were down. Consumers are still quite optimistic, but the bloom is off the rose when it comes to the euphoric outlook that people had after the election. Indeed, the expectations index was the lowest since October 2016 and is up only modestly since last June. The current conditions index is actually below its June 2016 number. As for inflation, while near-term expectations were stable, people now believe inflation will be higher over the next five years. That was surprising given the recent slowing in price increases. 

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: I have been expecting second quarter growth to be pretty solid, somewhere in the 3% range. But the data that have come in recently raise doubts whether that handle could be reached. Housing has been a key driver of growth over the past two quarters, but that doesn’t look like it is the case during the current quarter. In addition, the slide in vehicle sales doesn’t bode well for second quarter consumption. And with businesses waiting for some indications about the shape of tax changes, we shouldn’t expect capital spending to be great either. Put that all together and I suspect most forecasters will be marking down their second quarter GDP growth estimates. I am. That is important because now that the Fed has moved twice this year, we need some economic strength to have confidence that process will continue. Living in Philadelphia, I have learned to “trust the process”, but Fed policy is different from sports management. The Fed appears to want to continue raising rate at a steady pace and once it begins shrinking its balance sheet, to do so consistently as well. For both of those things to happen, the economy has to expand at least at the trend rate of roughly 2% to 2.25%. We may not get there during the first half of the year if second quarter growth turns out to be 2.5% or less. That cannot be ruled out. As for investors, there is no reason to be bullish unless you think there will be significant tax changes, be it real reform or the more likely tax cuts (the two are very, very different). Given the chaos in Washington, you tell me what is going to happen and we both will know.