November Consumer Confidence, September Home Prices

KEY DATA: Confidence: +3.3 points/ Case-Shiller Home Prices (Over-Year): +6.2%/ FHFA Home Prices (Over-Year): +6.5%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The sharp increases in home prices and high level of consumer confidence may be something to start worrying about.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The economy is moving ahead solidly in so many ways, but there could be problems forming. According to the Conference Board, Consumer confidence rose again in November. This was the fifth consecutive increase and the last time the index was higher was in November 2000. Both current conditions and expectations were up solidly. But the surge in confidence may not be backed by economic factors. Yes, the labor market is tight, but household spending-power is going nowhere. Maybe people are actually hoping to get the $4,000 to $9,000 income increase the administration has promised, but if so, they are going to be sorely disappointed. They can hope for major tax cuts, but for most, that is just not the case. So, one cloud on the horizon is consumer confidence. Household exuberance may be somewhat irrational.

A second concern comes from the housing market. Housing prices may be rising too rapidly. Both the September S&P/Case Shiller and the third quarter Federal Housing Finance Agency indices were up solidly. Price gains may not be quite as rapid as they were last decade, but they are strong and have persisted for quite some time. Worse, near double-digit increases are being posted in a number of metropolitan area.   We may not be in a new housing bubble just yet, but the jump in prices needs to be watched carefully.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: When I see economic data this strong, I ask once again, “Why the mad rush to cut taxes?” I keep hearing that we need more jobs, but the problem is workers not job openings. The only time over the past forty-give years the unemployment rate was below the current level was during 2000. I keep hearing that the middle class needs a break, but about 90% of the proposed tax cuts go to businesses and upper income households. Then I hear the economy is not growing fast enough. Fast enough for whom?   The growth rate has matched trend growth for the six years. And now we see that home prices are rising sharply and consumer confidence is at seventeen-year highs. Do we really need the massive tax cuts being debated in Congress? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on productivity-enhancing reform, something the bills don’t do much of? If growth does accelerate, even if for a limited period, don’t we run the risk of bubbles forming, especially in the labor market? When you do something is often as important as what you do and the tax bills contain the wrong things at the wrong time. But tax cuts do make for great political ads.