April Housing Starts, May Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Survey and Weekly Jobless Claims

KEY DATA: Starts: +5.7%; 1-Family: +6.2% Permits: +0.6%; 1-Family: -4.2%/ Phil. Fed: +8.1 points; Orders: -4.7 points/ Claims: -16,000

IN A NUTSHELL:  “The housing market is coming back a little, another sign the economy continues to expand at a decent pace.”

WHAT IT MEANS:  If you believe the bond market, where rates have been plummeting, you would think that the economy is in deep trouble.  But that is just not the case.  Housing starts rebounded in April, which really should not have surprised anyone.  The levels we had been seeing over the previous two months were way below where they should have been.  Why do I say that?  Because permit requests, which also rose, had been and still are running above the level of actual construction.  That had to change and there still is more to come.  For the past three months, permits have averaged nine percent more than starts, which means there is a backlog of construction that will likely be filled in the next few months.  In April, construction activity showed what was likely the effects of weather.  Starts skyrocketed by 85% in the Northeast and by 42% in the Midwest, but fell by roughly 5.5% in both the South and the West.  Wet weather may play havoc with activity in May, so any result should be viewed accordingly.  One issue for the economy that comes out of this report is that the number of homes under construction declined for the third consecutive month.  Building activity is what really matters for economic growth and right now, that is softening.

On the manufacturing front, conditions there may be firming a little as well.  The Philadelphia Fed’s survey of regional manufacturing activity jumped in early May.  Keep in mind, this measure is wildly volatile, so the surge we saw was not really out of the ordinary.  Indeed, the details don’t consistently argue that conditions are improving significantly.  For example, while employment improved a touch, new orders expanded at a less rapid pace.  Looked forward, expectations were largely the same, though firms are thinking that hiring may pick up.  As for inflation, which was in the special question section, firms say their prices may rise a little less than had been thinking in February, but that overall consumer inflation would run a little hotter. 

Jobless claims declined back to more typical, at least for this tight labor market, last week.   MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS:  In a normal world, where it is all about the economy, concerns should be minimal.  However, this is not a normal world.  Fighting a full-fledged trade war with China and a shooting war with Iran at the same time should be enough to unnerve investors.  But it appears as if many don’t believe that will be the situation.  How else can you explain the cratering and unwinding of that decline that has occurred over the past week?  Maybe investors are starting to understand they are mere puppets and the strings are being pulled by the tweeter in chief?  I make that statement not because I think those risks are not real; I believe they are.  But at some point, you have to start seeing it to believe it.  And then you have to determine the extent to which the economy will be harmed.  Right now, it is all fear and little analysis, so expect volatility to hold sway. As for the Fed, the uncertainty plays right into its hands.Why do anything until you know what direction policy will take us?  The difficulty, though, is that economic data tend to tell us what happened or is happening, not necessarily what will happen.  Being data dependent in an uncertain world where the data – and the markets – can be whipped around is an awfully risky approach to take.