August New Home Sales, July Home Prices and September Non-Manufacturing Activity


KEY DATA: Home Sales: -3.4%/ Case-Shiller (Over-Year): +5.9%/ Philadelphia Fed Index (Non-Manufacturing): +1.4 points; Orders: +7.3 points


IN A NUTSHELL: “Housing sales may not be strong, but a lack of inventory is causing prices to continue to jump.”


WHAT IT MEANS: The housing market is likely to be a puzzle over the next few months as the two hurricanes created havoc in the market in Texas and Florida. And since Harvey hit during August, that month’s data are likely to be a bit skewed. So it wasn’t surprising to see that new home sales fell in August. But the decline could not be blamed on the weather as no region posted a gain. There was a little bit of good news in the report. Though still low on an historical basis, the number of homes on the market was the highest since June 2009. As for prices, the median declined while the average rose. What we are seeing is an increase in moderate priced homes and solid demand for the extremely high cost homes.


The reality is that home prices are likely to continue increasing and may even gap up a little if mortgage rates start to increase. There just isn’t a lot of supply out there and that goes for not just new homes but existing homes as well. The S&P Case Shiller National Home Price Index posted a faster gain in July. Only one of the twenty metro areas, Chicago, was down over the month. Except for Seattle on the high-side and Chicago and New York on the slow-side, most of the other cities saw their prices increase by between 5% and 7.5%, a pretty tight shot pattern.


As for the services component of the economy, if the Philadelphia region is any indicator, and it tends to be just that, the industrial sector is doing just fine. The Philadelphia Fed’s Non-Manufacturing Index rose in September, led by a jump in new orders. Even with sales rising faster, backlogs are building. Looking toward the future, while respondents were less certain about the general economy, they were more optimistic about their own companies.


MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Next week, when we start getting September data, we will begin to see how the two hurricanes affected the economy. Until then, we can only assume that they slowed third quarter growth. I have marked my forecast down to under 2%, which puts me toward the bottom of most panels. I suspect other economists will be coming down if the data keep coming in as soft as they have. But fourth quarter is likely to be quite solid, assuming some rebuilding starts up and the government actually spends part of the money it has allocated to the recovery process. Meanwhile, the Fed will also be entering the equation as it will be reducing its balance sheet a touch. It is never easy to forecast any given quarter’s growth and when Mother Nature and the government combine to create chaos, it is almost impossible. So, the third and fourth quarter growth numbers should be viewed as aberrations. Whether investors get that is a different story as there is still hope that taxes will be cut (hope for reform is fading) and that alone is viewed as positive for stocks. But the rubber still has to meet the road and the politicians remain unwilling to actually work on a plan that both sides of the aisle can structure and support. That means the risk of another health care debacle is real if the Republicans overreach again and fail to get Democrats to buy in to their tax proposal.