May Housing Starts and Permits

KEY DATA: Starts: +5%; Year-to-Date: +11%; 1-Family: +3.9%; Permits: -4.6%; Year-to-Date: +8%; 1-Family: -2.2%

IN A NUTSHELL: “The rebound in home construction means the sector might actually add to growth this quarter.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Home construction had been lagging this quarter, which was a bit of a surprise. And with mortgage rates rising, there was concern the sector could falter. Instead, housing starts rose solidly in May. But the data were all over the place. For example, construction in the Midwest surged by over 60%. Multi-family building activity nearly doubled and single-family starts jumped 45%. Those changes came after large declines in April. We are talking huge changes that are usually seen in the winter, not the spring. Meanwhile, starts were down in the other three regions, with the Northeast posting a double-digit decline. So we need to step back and see what happens in June before we make any major conclusions about the strength of the home construction sector. Looking forward, permit requests moderated, but they had been running well above the pace of construction and it was inevitable there would be a pull back. A massive increase in the Northeast and a more moderate decline in the Midwest were more than offset by weakness in the West and especially the South. For the last three months, permit requests ran higher than starts, so there is a reasonable expectation that the large jump in construction will be sustained, at least for a couple of months.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Second quarter growth looks like it was solid and the remaining question is how big a number will print. Estimates range up to 4% or even more and that cannot be ruled out. I am more in the 3.5% range (actually, a touch below that), but there is still a lot of data to come that could change that. The strong housing number could push up GDP estimates. Regardless, the economy is in good shape, which just about everyone understands. Broad based growth would support the Fed’s expected four moves this year while not spooking investors too much. It is hard to argue that the economy will falter from a fairly modest one-half percentage point increase in short-term rates if the economy is expanding robustly. Indeed, if or when the current trade war fears fade, investors will get back to watching economic variables and those look good.