KEY DATA: NAHB: 60 (unchanged)/ Phil. Fed: -9.5 points/ Claims: down 15,000
IN A NUTSHELL: “The housing sector is moving to the forefront and if manufacturing can ever get its act back together, this economy could really accelerate.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The economy continues to expand at a moderate pace even as we would like to see it grow more rapidly. One of the factors in this decent but not great expansion has been a rotation in sector leadership rather than broad based growth. Housing has been a laggard, but that looks like it is changing rapidly. The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index is now at a level not seen since November 2005. From January 2001 to December 2005, the housing bubble period, the index averaged 63. Given that the current reading is 60, it appears that builders are getting bulled up once again. We are not talking a new bubble here, but we are looking at significant gains in activity, especially in the single-family segment. Also, it looks like the long-suffering Northeast will be seeing a lot more construction as that region’s index has finally broke into the black.
While housing is coming back, manufacturing continues to decelerate. The Philadelphia Fed’s manufacturing index dropped sharply in July. The sector is still growing, but not strongly. And with backlogs going nowhere and payrolls largely flat, it doesn’t look as if manufacturers in the Philadelphia region will be ramping up production soon. Confidence about the future is picking up, but it is still below recent high levels.
On the labor market front, last week new unemployment claims jumped, raising questions about future job gains. Well, never mind. This week, most of the rise was wiped out. While the level is still a touch higher than it had been for much of the past year, it is now back to where solid job gains should be expected.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Fed Chair Yellen keeps repeating that a rate hike is coming, probably this year. She also keeps warning that the first one doesn’t matter: It is the pathway going forward that is critical. But markets keep focusing on hike number one and the data keep telling us that it is unclear which meeting this year it will occur. I have not ruled out September, as I believe the labor market data, including compensation gains, will be strong enough to convince the members that the economy can absorb a rate hike. In particular, follow the compensation numbers reported in the quarterly Employment Cost Index. Second quarter data will be released on July 31st. These data are much more comprehensive than the monthly hourly wage numbers and have been accelerating. If that pick-up continues, and the unemployment rate falls even a little over the next two months preceding the September 16-17 FOMC meeting, the Fed could consider making its first move then. As for investors, when you get divergent economic numbers, the best thing is to punt, especially since earnings are coming out.