Posts Tagged ‘Department of Commerce’

Tepid 1st Quarter Growth Disappoints

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

The American economy grew less than expected during the 1st quarter as the biggest gain in consumer spending in more than a year failed to overcome a diminished contribution from business inventories.  Gross domestic product rose at a 2.2 percent annual rate after a three percent increase in the 4th quarter of 2011, according to Department of Commerce Department statistics.  The median forecast called for a 2.5 percent increase.  Household purchases rose 2.9 percent, exceeding the most positive projection.  Home building grew at its fastest pace in almost two years.  The GDP data confirm the view of Federal Reserve officials who expect “moderate” growth as they repeated that borrowing costs are likely to stay low at least through late 2014.

In addition to the improvement in consumer purchases and home building, the economy benefited from a rise in auto production.  The GDP was negatively impacted by a drop in government spending and slower growth in business investment.  The United States is faring better than some other major economies.  The United Kingdom is in the throes of its first double-dip recession since the 1970s.  In Japan and Germany, GDP declined in the final three months of 2011, while China’s economy, the world’s second-largest, is also cooling.

“Consumers are remarkably stable and steady,” said Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas in New York.  “We’ll need to see final demand continue to improve.  We’re still in muddling-along territory.”

According to MarketWatch, the devil is in the details. “Growth of 2.2 percent is mediocre, but it’s worse than that once you peel away a few layers — about a fourth of the growth in gross domestic product was accounted for by a build-up in inventories, and half of it came from the building and selling of motor vehicles.  Strip away the inventory growth, and final sales in the economy increased 1.6 percent, the 4th quarter in the past five that was below two percent.  Although all the headlines report on the GDP numbers, the number to watch is final sales, because that gauges demand for our products, not merely how much we made.  Away from King Consumer, the rest of the economy is slowing.  Business investment spending dropped 2.1 percent, the first decline since 2009.  Let’s not get carried away too much by the gloom and doom.  The economy IS growing, even if it’s not as fast as we’d like.  The economy has grown by nearly seven percent since depths of the recession in 2009.”

As disappointing as the 2.2 percent is, the market will have to learn to live with lowered expectations.  From a market perspective, lukewarm growth could force Ben Bernanke’s hand to unfreeze lending, keep interest rates at their current lows, or re-use other monetary policy tools to keep money flowing.  Ironically, even with the Fed’s relaxed monetary policy, most of the extra cash in the economy remains on corporate balance sheets (Apple has billions on hand) or is going into the securities markets.

Official reaction was as expected. “Today’s advance estimate indicates that the economy posted its 11th straight quarter of positive growth, as real GDP (the total amount of goods and services produced in the country) grew at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter of this year.  While the continued expansion of the economy is encouraging, additional growth is needed to replace the jobs lost in the deep recession that began at the end of 2007,” said Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke called the slow pace of recovery “frustrating. Here we are almost three years from the beginning of the expansion, and the unemployment rate is still over eight percent.  It’s been a very long slog.  And that, I think, would be the single most concerning thing,” he said.

March Housing Starts Down, While Construction Permits Rise

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

American homebuilders started construction on new houses in March at a slower pace, but in an ironic twist, the number of construction permits jumped to their highest level in 3 ½ years.  This is a positive signal for the slumping residential industry.  According to the Department of Commerce, housing starts fell 5.8 percent to an annual rate of 654,000, significantly below the MarketWatch forecast of economists who had projected an increase to 703,000.  Housing starts in February were also revised down slightly, to 694,000 from 698,000.  At the same time, building permits — a measure of future demand — rose 4.5 percent to 747,000 in March from February’s revised 715,000.  The increase occurred entirely in the multi-dwelling housing segment.

The increase in permits suggests builders are increasingly optimistic as the industry recovers from the worst slump in modern times. Multi-family permits rose 24.2 percent to 262,000.  On the other hand, permits for single-family homes fell 3.5 percent to 462,000 — evidence that builders still face pressure from a deluge of foreclosures.  Many buyers are looking for deals on existing homes instead of paying more for new construction.

Some economists speculate that warm weather contributed to the March decline in housing starts because it allowed builders to start new projects in January and February that they normally would have begun in spring.  “It appears that the payback from an unusually warm fall and winter came in March as record warm temperatures likely pulled new construction forward,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva of BNP Paribas.

The average March temperature was 51.1 degrees; that’s 38.6 degrees warmer than the 20th century average and the hottest March since records were first kept in 1895, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.  Spring home sales are expected to outpace last year as record low mortgage rates produce an attractive market for home buyers.  The average fixed rate on a 30-year mortgage was 3.88 percent in mid-April, according to Freddie Mac and may fall again.

An oversupply of unsold homes is holding prices down, creating a major difficulty for the sector, said Gregory Miller, an economist at Suntrust Banks in Atlanta.  “The production side of the housing market is in the early stages of recovery, but builders are shifting their composition of products from condos and single-family homes to apartment construction.  It’s going to be rocky for awhile.  You still have inventory overhang.  There are also issues on the financing side of production as well as the mortgage side.  The problem is getting over the financing hurdle. Lenders are still very concerned about where they put their capital.  From a trend perspective, it is still on a rising path.  Tentative is the best we could say about this.”

Even a slow-growing housing market is a big plus because it is no longer a drag on the broader economy. Residential real estate was the cause of the financial crisis and the recession, so it’s encouraging to see this sector moving in the right direction.  It’s early to expect strong, sustained growth in the immediate future.  “Housing continues to bump along the bottom,” said Jacob Oubina, a senior economist at RBC Capital Markets.  “The best we can hope from housing over the next couple years is that it won’t subtract from growth.”

According to Omer Esiner, Chief Market Analyst, Commonwealth Foreign Exchange, “The housing data is mixed.  On the one hand housing starts came in below expectations and on the other hand it was a strong month for permits, which bodes well for the months ahead.  So the rise in permits kind of offsets the disappointing data.”

Let’s Go Shopping!

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Despite rising gas prices, retail sales in the U.S. rose 0.8 percent in March, proof that consumers are still filling up their tanks, according to economists.  The rise in purchases follows a 1.1 percent increased in February that was the biggest in five months, according to a survey of 71 economists.  The gain sent retail sales to a record high of $411.1 billion, 24 percent higher than the recession low hit in March 2009.  “Retail sales are going to end the quarter on a positive note,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc.  “Underlying job growth is decent.”

Sales may have been helped by the unusually warm weather. The average temperature was 51.1 degrees Fahrenheit, the warmest on record for the month in the past 117 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  The economy expanded “at a modest to moderate pace” from mid-February through late March as manufacturing, hiring and retail sales strengthened, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest Beige Book report.  The central bank is maintaining its benchmark interest rate near zero until late 2014 to encourage economic expansion.

Americans spent more on building materials, cars, electronics, furniture and clothing in March.  A separate Department of Commerce report showed that American companies restocked at a steady pace in February, which suggests that businesses expect consumers to continue spending this spring.  The retail sales report is the government’s initial monthly look at consumer spending, which represents 70 percent of economic activity.  The increase, along with other positive data on inventories and trade, suggests growth in the January-March quarter could be stronger than first thought.  Economists are estimating growth at an annual rate of between 2.5 percent and three percent in the 1st quarter, which is in line with the annual pace reported for the October-December quarter.  Americans are feeling greater confidence in the economy after seeing hiring strengthen over the winter.  Job gains were typically 246,000 per month from December through February.

In terms of cars, “The industry and consumers have been very resilient in the face of higher pump prices,” Don Johnson, vice president of U.S. sales at General Motors, said.  “The steadily improving economy is playing a role and so is pent-up demand and an improved credit market.”

Corporate stockpiles rose a seasonally adjusted 0.6 percent, according to the Commerce Department. That’s less than January’s upwardly revised gain of 0.8 percent. The increase pushed stockpiles to $1.58 trillion which is nearly 20 percent more than the recent low hit in September 2009, just after the recession ended. Sales grew faster than inventories in February, rising 0.7 percent.  This is a good sign because it is evidence that companies aren’t building too much inventory, which can result in cutbacks in production in the future.

“The pace of inventory building is consistent with what you’d expect to see in a gradual expansion,” said Tim Quinlan, an economist at Wells Fargo.  Businesses are rebuilding their stockpiles after cutting them over the summer in fear of a double-dip recession.  Steady inventory growth in the 1st quarter, as well as a narrower trade deficit in February and stronger retail sales, has lifted the outlook for growth.

American households “have the income to propel their purchases now that we’re seeing job growth,” said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Inc., the third- best forecaster of retail sales for the 24 months ended in March.  “They have adjusted to the higher price of fuel.  The economy now needs to build on its own momentum.”

Retail Sales Are on the Rise

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

February retail sales climbed the fastest in five months. Even rising gas prices didn’t dampen demand for cars, clothing and other goods.  According to the Commerce Department, retail sales rose a seasonally adjusted 1.1 percent to $407.8 billion in February; January retail sales were revised upwards to show a 0.6 percent rise instead of the initially reported 0.4 percent.  If you don’t count cars, sales climbed 0.9 percent.  Economists queried by MarketWatch had anticipated a 1.2 percent gain for the headline index and a 0.7 percent advance for retail sales, not counting autos.

Consumers are “unfazed by higher gas prices,” said Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse, who accurately forecast the increase in spending.  “This is a pleasant surprise on the overall picture for the economy.  For the Federal Reserve, it’s steady as she goes.  They will be encouraged, but there is still a long way to go.”

Gourmet-cookware chain Williams-Sonoma Inc., said demand improved at the start of the year following the holiday shopping season.  “Post holiday, we saw a progressively stronger retail environment,” said Laura Alber, the company’s chief executive officer, which reported record earnings for 2011.  Sales increased 1.6 percent at automobile dealers, reversing the previous month’s decline.  The results fell short of what the industry expected.  Cars in February sold at the fastest pace in four years, led by Chrysler and a surprise gain from General Motors. Light-vehicle sales accelerated 6.4 percent from January to a 15 million annual rate, the strongest since February 2008, according to Ward’s Automotive Group.

“There are a number of factors that are helping release this pent-up demand,” said Don Johnson, vice president of GM’s U.S. sales.  “They include stronger employment, good credit availability, and both of those are leading to improving consumer sentiment.”

Clothing store purchases rose 1.8 percent, the most since November 2010.  Furniture and general merchandise stores were the only categories to show a decrease in sales.  An improved employment and income picture are giving consumers the confidence to spend more. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to an almost four-year high in the week ended March 4.

Employers boosted payrolls more than forecast in February.

Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist at Barclays Capital Inc. and a former Fed researcher who specialized in consumer spending, projects Americans will boost purchases at a three percent yearly rate in the 2nd half of the year after a 2.5 percent gain in the first six months.

Federal Reserve policymakers are likely to retain their plan to keep interest rates low at least through late 2014.  Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said maintaining monetary stimulus is warranted even with employment gains and a lower jobless rate.  While there are “some positive developments in the labor market,” Bernanke said, “the pace of expansion has been uneven.” The rise in gas prices “is likely to push up inflation temporarily while reducing consumers’ purchasing power,” he said.

“We believe that the consumer is in better shape than recent downbeat commentary from Fed Chairman Bernanke,” said John Ryding and Conrad DeQuadros, analysts with RDQ Economics. Another Commerce Department report showed U.S. companies restocked at a faster rate in January, a sign that businesses expect stronger job growth to fuel more sales.  Business stockpiles rose 0.7 percent in January, while sales grew 0.4 percent.  For the remainder of 2012, JPMorgan Chase analysts forecast growth of 2.2 percent, an improvement from the 1.7 percent growth seen in 2011.

The rise in sales “signals that the improving economic fundamentals, particularly strong employment growth, are being translated into higher spending activity,” said Millan Mulraine, senior macro strategist at TD Securities. “This building momentum is especially encouraging for the recovery as it suggests that the self-reinforcing positive dynamics between jobs growth and spending activity could foster a more robust economic recovery in the coming months.”

2011 Black Friday Pays Off for Retailers

Monday, December 5th, 2011

A record 226 million Americans shopped in stores and online during the four-day Thanksgiving holiday, an increase from 212 million last year, according to estimates by The National Retail Federation (NRF).  These eager shoppers also spent more: The typical holiday shopper spent $398.62, an increase from the $365.34 reported last year.  Approximately 24 percent of Black Friday shoppers were waiting at stores for a midnight opening, a 9.5 percent increase when compared with 2010 when only a few stores were open at that time.  Some 37 percent of midnight Black Friday shoppers were in the 18-to-34 age group.  “Black Friday has evolved from an early morning shopping activity to a late night entertainment,” said Ellen Davis, spokeswoman at the NRF.  “A lot of people stayed up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. to go shopping, and then went to bed.”

Sales soared 16.7 percent over the same period last year to $52.4 billion, according to the NRF. “American consumers are taking a deep breath and making the decision that it’s okay to go shopping again, in spite of high unemployment and uncertainty over the stock market and housing market,” Davis said.

The results for the initial holiday shopping weekend are proof that retailers’ efforts to tempt shoppers during the weak economy are working.  Some like Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney are making a stronger push online to compete more effectively with rival Amazon.com.  Major chains like Macy’s, Target, Best Buy opened their doors at midnight on Thanksgiving evening instead of the pre-dawn Friday hours of years past.  The question remains whether retailers’ will be able to hold shoppers’ attention throughout the rest of the season, which can bring in 25 to 40 percent of a merchant’s annual revenue.  Americans remain driven by deep discounting and they’re conscious of their spending budgets.

Even as they spent money, shoppers said that with the high price of gas and other goods, this is not a good time to spend, according to the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index.  Retail sales grew a paltry 0.5 percent in October, slowing from 0.7 percent in September, according to the Department of Commerce.  In the weeks just prior to Black Friday, ShopperTrak reported sales had risen 3.6 percent during the week of November 12 and 3.8 percent during the week of November 19, compared to last year.

Analysts were surprised by the number of shoppers and the amount of spending; they had expected sales to be dampened by the nine percent unemployment rate, the high costs of gas and concerns about fiscal upheaval in Europe.  It is uncertain whether retailers will be able to maintain the early momentum for the rest of the season.  “One swallow does not a holiday season make.  After the deepest recession in decades, the solid Black Friday weekend is welcome news, but we’re only in the second quarter of a long playoff game,” said Craig Johnson, president of the consulting firm Customer Growth Partners.

According to ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin, “This is the largest year-over-year gain in ShopperTrak’s national retail sales estimate for Black Friday since the 8.3 percent increase we saw between 2007 and 2006.  “Still, it’s just one day. It remains to be seen whether consumers will sustain this behavior through the holiday shopping season.”

On the whole, holiday spending is expected to grow by a fairly small 2.8 percent to about $466 billion, according to the NRF.  For now, experts agree that retailers will likely have to continue to discount to get shoppers to spend.  “The big question is: How do you close the season?” said Hana Ben-Shabat, a partner at A. T. Kearney’s retail practice.  “This is a very promotional driven shopper.”

American shoppers spent $816 million on Black Friday without leaving the comfort of their computer chairs, a 26 percent increase over 2010, according to ComScore data.  The results reinforce numbers released by IBM Coremetrics that showed online sales on Black Friday grew by 24.3 percent compared with the same period in 2010.  Approximately 50 million shopped online Friday, a 35 percent increase over last year, ComScore reported.

“Each of the top online retailers generated significantly greater Black Friday activity compared to last year,” ComScore Chairman Gian Fulgoni said.  “Amazon.com once again led the pack, with 50 percent more visitors than any other retailer, while also showing the highest growth rate versus last year.  However, it is telling that the top multi-channel retailers also showed strong growth in visitors, demonstrating the importance of the online channel to the retail industry as a whole.”  Amazon, Wal-Mart and Best Buy all reported double-digit percentage gains over last year.

Companies Are Stocking Up on Durable Goods

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

American companies ordered more heavy machinery, computers and other long-lasting manufactured goods in September, an encouraging sign for the shaky economy.  The increase in demand for these durable goods suggests businesses are staying with investment plans, despite slow growth and a lack of consumer confidence.

Durable goods are products expected to last a minimum of three years.  Core capital goods are products that have nothing to do with defense or aircraft.  The gains are driven by tax breaks given to businesses for investments made this year, an incentive Congress approved last December to boost the lethargic economy.

“Demand for big ticket items seems to be alive and well,” said John Ryding, an analyst at RDQ Economics.  “Outside of the volatile transportation sector, the gains in durable orders were broad based in September, and point to a manufacturing sector that continues to expand at a solid rate.”

“Despite the understandable concern about economic growth, businesses are still investing,” said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Robust demand for core capital goods is a strategic reason why economists expect an annual growth rate of 2.4 percent in the 3rd quarter.  That would be a major improvement from the first six months of the year, when the economy expanded at just 0.9 percent, the worst growth since the recession ended more than two years ago.  A 2.4 percent growth rate could ease fears that the economy is on the verge of sliding back into a recession.  Even so, the growth rate needs to nearly double to make a substantial dent in the unemployment rate, which remained stuck at 9.1 percent in September for the third consecutive month.

“Manufacturing is in pretty decent shape, and this ends the quarter on a high note,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale, who accurately forecast demand for non-transportation equipment.  “We’ve got decent momentum going into the 4th quarter.”  Orders for computers and related products jumped as much as six percent.  A Commerce Department report is projected to show the world’s largest economy grew at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the 3rd quarter, an increase of the 1.3 percent rate in the previous three months.  Societe Generale’s Jones said the gain in durable goods demand has the potential to bring GDP growth for last quarter closer to three percent.

Boeing, the largest American aircraft maker, received 59 airplane orders in September, compared with 127 the preceding month.  September’s decline came on the heels of a 25 percent gain in August.  Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft jumped 17 percent at an annualized rate compared with an 11 percent increase in the previous three months, an indication that business investment is picking up.

Additional indicators show that manufacturing, which accounts for approximately 12 percent of the economy, continues to grow.  The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index rose a full point to 51.6 in September, compared with 50.6 in August.  A level greater than 50 indicates that expansion is taking place.  Industrial production advanced in September on demand for items such as cars and computers, according to the Federal Reserve.

According to Mike Shea, Managing Partner and Trader at Direct Access Partners LLC, “The number wasn’t bad, and having a decent number in durables is far better than having a bad number, since with the overhang of Europe, if we were getting lousy data here, then we wouldn’t have anything to hang our hats on.  If not for what was going on in Europe, this market would be running on all cylinders.  The summit in Europe is the tradable event.  We could have one hundred percent earnings positive surprises today, we could have great economic data come out, all of that could come in rosy domestically, but if the news out of Europe is judged to be bad, none of what happens in the U.S. will matter.  This market will not shrug off a lousy plan coming out of Europe.  It will not shrug off any plan that is not fundamentally based in reality.”

Spending Rises as Savings Fall

Monday, November 7th, 2011

Are Americans shopping until they drop again? It could be, judging by the latest government report showing that consumer spending rose by a surprisingly vigorous 0.6 percent in September, even as personal incomes barely grew.  Adjusting for inflation, after-tax income declined slightly by 0.1 percent, according to the Department of Commerce.  The bottom line is a sharp drop in the saving rate in September, to just 3.6 percent.  That’s the lowest level since 2007 and a drop from a healthy five to six percent during most of the last two years.

Scott Hoyt, who studies consumer spending for Moody’s Analytics, says it’s possible that the September numbers may have been inflated by spending for repairs and other things after Hurricane Irene.  At the same time, other data suggest that people are spending more because lenders are suddenly more willing to give credit and as households — which had deferred buying new cars and other goods — feel more optimistic about the direction of the economy.  Consumer spending is perceived as a critical economic component,  and is often cited as representing 70 percent of the nation’s GDP.

The improvement in consumer spending helped boost the economy through the 3rd quarter while policymakers ranging from President Barack Obama to the Federal Reserve took additional action to stimulate growth and hiring.  Unless paychecks grow, Americans may not be able to continue their spending sprees.  “Given the state of consumer sentiment and the savings rate, we should see moderate spending, at best, going forward,” said Sean Incremona, a senior economist at 4Cast Inc., who accurately predicted the consumer spending boom.  “The savings rate is just one of those warning signs that says we’re not pulling ourselves out vigorously, so the economy still has a lot of vulnerability.”

Fed policymakers are considering options for additional monetary easing even as the economy improves.  Vice Chairman Janet Yellen said that a 3rd round of significant asset purchases “might become appropriate if evolving economic conditions called for significantly greater monetary accommodation.”

“Consumers today are still facing inflationary pressures on food, high unemployment, minimal job and income growth and waning consumer confidence,” BJ’s Restaurants, Inc., Chief Financial Officer Gregory Levin said after the chain reported a 6.5 percent increase in sales for the 3rd quarter.  “It is difficult to ascertain if the current trends represent the trend we will end up seeing throughout the remainder of this year, or how strong the holiday retail selling season will be.”

“Income growth will have to be watched closely in coming months as the recent trend of spending at the expense of savings is not sustainable,” economists at Nomura Securities wrote.  Inflation rose 0.2 percent in September, based on the latest analysis of the personal consumption expenditure price index.  The PCE (Personal Consumption Expenditures) grew by 2.9 percent over the past year.

“Sluggish growth in U.S. consumer income in September led households to cut back on saving to increase their spending, casting doubts over the durability of the economy’s third-quarter growth spurt,” Reuters wrote.

According to The Hill, “Purchases of new and used cars drove spending.  Clothing sales rose 1.1 percent.  Purchases such as utility payments were up 0.2 percent, as consumers paid to cool their homes during a brutally hot summer.

Companies Are Stocking Up on Durable Goods

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

American companies ordered more heavy machinery, computers and other long-lasting manufactured goods in September, an encouraging sign for the shaky economy.  The increase in demand for these durable goods suggests businesses are staying with investment plans, despite slow growth and a lack of consumer confidence.

Durable goods are products expected to last a minimum of three years.  Core capital goods are products that have nothing to do with defense or aircraft.  The gains are driven by tax breaks given to businesses for investments made this year, an incentive Congress approved last December to boost the lethargic economy.

“Demand for big ticket items seems to be alive and well,” said John Ryding, an analyst at RDQ Economics.  “Outside of the volatile transportation sector, the gains in durable orders were broad based in September, and point to a manufacturing sector that continues to expand at a solid rate.”

“Despite the understandable concern about economic growth, businesses are still investing,” said Jennifer Lee, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Robust demand for core capital goods is a strategic reason why economists expect an annual growth rate of 2.4 percent in the 3rd quarter.  That would be a major improvement from the first six months of the year, when the economy expanded at just 0.9 percent, the worst growth since the recession ended more than two years ago.  A 2.4 percent growth rate could ease fears that the economy is on the verge of sliding back into a recession.  Even so, the growth rate needs to nearly double to make a substantial dent in the unemployment rate, which remained stuck at 9.1 percent in September for the third consecutive month.

“Manufacturing is in pretty decent shape, and this ends the quarter on a high note,” said Brian Jones, a senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale, who accurately forecast demand for non-transportation equipment.  “We’ve got decent momentum going into the 4th quarter.”  Orders for computers and related products jumped as much as six percent.  A Commerce Department report is projected to show the world’s largest economy grew at a 2.5 percent annual pace in the 3rd quarter, an increase of the 1.3 percent rate in the previous three months.  Societe Generale’s Jones said the gain in durable goods demand has the potential to bring GDP growth for last quarter closer to three percent.

Boeing, the largest American aircraft maker, received 59 airplane orders in September, compared with 127 the preceding month.  September’s decline came on the heels of a 25 percent gain in August.  Orders for non-defense capital goods excluding aircraft jumped 17 percent at an annualized rate compared with an 11 percent increase in the previous three months, an indication that business investment is picking up.

Additional indicators show that manufacturing, which accounts for approximately 12 percent of the economy, continues to grow.  The Institute for Supply Management’s factory index rose a full point to 51.6 in September, compared with 50.6 in August.  A level greater than 50 indicates that expansion is taking place.  Industrial production advanced in September on demand for items such as cars and computers, according to the Federal Reserve.

According to Mike Shea, Managing Partner and Trader at Direct Access Partners LLC, “The number wasn’t bad, and having a decent number in durables is far better than having a bad number, since with the overhang of Europe, if we were getting lousy data here, then we wouldn’t have anything to hang our hats on.  If not for what was going on in Europe, this market would be running on all cylinders.  The summit in Europe is the tradable event.  We could have one hundred percent earnings positive surprises today, we could have great economic data come out, all of that could come in rosy domestically, but if the news out of Europe is judged to be bad, none of what happens in the U.S. will matter.  This market will not shrug off a lousy plan coming out of Europe.  It will not shrug off any plan that is not fundamentally based in reality.”

Contract Cancellations Sour Home Sales

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

A new phenomenon has emerged that is depressing the sales of existing homes. Contract cancellations are surging, dashing hopes that the distressed housing market is showing signs of improvement.  According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), sales fell 0.8 percent in June compared with May to an annual rate of just 4.77 million units, the lowest since November, and falling for the third consecutive month.  Economists had expected sales to climb to a 4.90 million-unit yearly pace.  “Buyers and sellers are increasingly running up against conservative appraisals, which often cause deals to fall through or be delayed,” said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities.  In fact, the market is unlikely to improve in the near term, said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.

“A variety of issues are weighing on the market including an unusual spike in contract cancellations in the past month,” NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said.  Fully 16 percent of NAR members reported a sales contract was cancelled in June, up from four percent in May.  “The underlying reason for elevated cancellations is unclear,” Yun said, suggesting possible problems like tight credit for buyers and low home appraisals.

Writing for the Wall Street Pit, Dirk van Dijk says that “Regionally sales were down on the month in two of the four Census regions.  All four regions were down year over year.  The Northeast fared the worst, with sales down 5.2 percent for the month and down 17.0 percent from a year ago.  The West had a month to month decrease, with sales falling 1.7 percent, down 2.6 percent from a year ago.  In the Midwest, sales rose one percent for the month but are down 14.0 percent year over year.  The South, the largest of the four regions, saw a 0.5percent rise on the month, but a 5.6 percent year-over-year decline.  After all, it is better to simply sell the house and get something for it, rather than let the bank take it and get nothing for it.  The more people under water, and the deeper they are, the higher foreclosures and strategic defaults are going to be.  A strategic default is when someone has the cash flow available to continue to make his mortgage payment, but simply decides not to, since paying is a just plain stupid thing to do from a financial perspective.  If you have a house that could only sell for $150,000 in the current environment, and you owe $200,000 on the mortgage, in effect you have the option of ‘selling’ the house to the bank for $200,000 simply by not writing the checks.  Of course that will be a hit to your credit rating, but $50,000 is probably worth a bit of a tarnish on your Fico score.  If the difference is only $5000, then the hit to your credit score makes less sense, and there are lots of non economic factors (a house is after all a home, not just an investment) that come into play.”

Despite the disappointing existing house data, homebuilders appear to have more confidence than buyers, because May housing starts climbed to a five-month high, according to the Department of Commerce.  The month was the first time in five years that more homes were started than completed.  A majority of the buyers were investors, with 29 percent of the transactions being all cash.

Writing for The Hill, Vicki Needham says that “Distressed homes — foreclosures and short sales generally sold at deep discounts — accounted for 30 percent of sales in June, compared with 31 percent in May and 32 percent in June 2010.  Foreclosures have flooded the market, providing good deals for some potential homebuyers but hindering new construction.  Mortgage rates for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage were 4.51 percent in June, down from 4.64 percent in May.  The rate was 4.74 percent in June 2010, according to Freddie Mac.”

“With record high housing affordability conditions thus far in 2011, we’d normally expect to see stronger home sales,” said NAR President Ron Phipps.  “Even with job creation below expectations, excessively tight loan standards are keeping many buyers from completing deals.  Although proposals being considered in Washington could effectively put more restrictions on lending, some banking executives have hinted that credit may return to more normal, safe standards in the not-too-distant future, but the tardiness of this process is holding back the recovery.

Phipps noted that lower mortgage loan limits, which are scheduled to go into effect October 1, already are having an effect.  “Some lenders are placing lower loan limits on current contracts in anticipation they may not close before the end of September,” he said.  “As a result, some contracts may be getting canceled because certain buyers are unwilling or unable to obtain a more costly jumbo mortgage.”

Economy Reaches Stall Speed

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

The American economy expanded at a snail’s pace of just 1.3 percent in the 2nd quarter, according to a report from the Department of Commerce. Growth in the first three months of 2011 was reduced to 0.4 percent from an earlier reading of 1.9 percent.

“Today’s first look at GDP in the 2nd quarter confirms what we already knew:  The economy isn’t growing as fast as it needs to,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.  “Experts have repeatedly warned that if this uncertainty continues, our economy will pay the price.  We can’t afford to return to the same failed policies that brought us here.  We must build on the progress we’ve made over the last two years and reach a balanced compromise that will reduce our debt and at the same time strengthen our job-creating ability and global competitiveness for the future.”

Soaring gas prices and meager income gains caused consumers to limit their spending in the spring.  The abrupt slowdown means the economy in 2011 will likely grow at a slower pace than in 2010.  Additionally, economists don’t expect growth to pick up enough in the 2nd half to cut the unemployment rate, which rose to 9.2 percent In June.  Economists originally thought that a Social Security payroll tax cut would spur adequate growth to reduce the unemployment rate.  Unfortunately, the lion’s share of that money was spent filling up gas tanks as gas prices soared.  In an unfortunate twist, employers pulled back on hiring because Americans spent less.  Thanks in part to high gas prices, consumer spending was virtually flat throughout the spring.  It grew a mere 0.1 percent, after experiencing 2.1 percent growth in the winter.  Spending on long-lasting manufactured goods — primarily autos and appliances — declined 4.4 percent.

Usually reliable government spending fell for the 3rd consecutive quarter.  State and local governments also slashed spending, the seventh time in eight quarters since the recession officially came to an end.  Corporate spending on equipment and software grew 5.7 percent in the 2nd quarter, down from the 1st quarter’s impressive 8.7 percent pace and below 2010’s double-digit gains.  Additionally, American incomes are not growing.  After-tax incomes, adjusted for inflation, rose just 0.7 percent, similar to the 1st quarter and the weakest numbers since the recession ended.

Kathy Bostjancic, director for macroeconomic analysis at the Conference Board, said the poor new data could push the American economy back into recession.  Although she said that the chances of that are still low. “Anemic consumption, still declining state and local government spending, tepid business investment, and soft housing activity all combined to offset some strength in exports,” she said.  “Concerns about the weak labor market and rising food and energy prices continue to weigh on consumer confidence.”  In June, the Federal Reserve cut its estimate of economic growth for the year.  The Fed now thinks that the economy will grow between 2.7 percent and 2.9 percent, down from an April estimate of 3.1 percent to 3.3 percent.

The economy is struggling to recover from the recession that lasted from 2007 to 2009, a time when the GDP contracted.  According to a government report, the recession was even worse than originally estimated.  Between the last few months of 2007 and the middle of 2009, the economy declined by 5.1 percent.  That is one percentage point more than previous estimates.

Writing in the Washington Post’s “Political Economy” column, Neil Irwin says that “But even if the number comes in somewhat higher than economists are expecting, it will be no cause for celebration.  The U.S. economy is capable of growing at about 2.5 percent a year over the longer term, as the population increases and workers become more productive.  But when the economy grows at that rate, the labor market can only tread water — accommodating the rise in the labor force, but unable to put the millions of Americans still unemployed back to work.  So, what happens to employment when the nation’s economic growth stays below that 2.5 percent rate, as it has in the 1st half of this year?  The U.S. jobless rate has risen for three months straight.  Among the major culprits in keeping job seekers out of work are the financial struggles faced by state and local governments that are cutting tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in spending each month to balance their budgets.  State and local government cutbacks subtracted 1.2 percentage points from 1st quarter GDP, the Commerce Department has estimated.  Friday’s GDP release shows the amount of drag in the 2nd quarter.  States were able to delay those cutbacks when they received hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal government in 2009 to ride out the recession.  That money has all been spent, and now states are being forced to slash spending and raise taxes to comply with balanced-budget requirements.  Congress has given little serious consideration to reviving the stimulus program.”

Some economists see the light at the end of the tunnel.  “The pace of fiscal retrenchment is likely to pick up in coming years,” said Jan Hatzius, Goldman Sachs’ chief economist, “and this year’s experience confirms our view that this adjustment is likely to weigh on GDP growth.”