Housing Starts Fall As Permits Climb In February

Housing starts fell again in February, inching lower by 0.2% from January. That’s the third monthly decline in a row. The rate of descent is slowing, which constitutes the only good news for this data series these days, but that’s more than offset by the fact that for the first time since 2009 the number of starts (seasonally adjusted annual rate) has slipped for three straight months. That’s a worrisome sign, but it’s premature to assume the worst. Indeed, the sight of a healthy upturn in the number of newly issued housing permits last month holds out the possibility that there may be a spring thaw waiting in the wings for starts.

For now, however, the dark trend in housing construction looks troubling. The year-over-year change in starts turned negative last month to the tune of -6.4%. That’s the first case of red ink for the annual comparison since mid-2011.

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On the bright side, permits increased by a strong 7.7% last month, which translates into a year-over-year gain of 6.9%. Clearly, permits and starts are singing two different tunes and that inspires caution for looking ahead, no matter your view. It’s anyone’s guess which indicator will prevail as the true compass for housing, but eventually these two closely related metrics will align. Divergence doesn’t last long here, and for an obvious reason: permits reflect builders’ intentions. Although filing the paperwork to build new homes doesn’t insure that construction will follow, historically speaking it’s been a fairly reliable sign of what’s coming. As the economist Bernard Bahmohl reminds in The Secrets of Economic Indicators:

By tracking the issuance of permits, one can get a sense of how much and where future construction activity will take place. Because housing permits are such an excellent marker of future homebuilding, they are one of the 10 components that make up the Conference Board’s Index of Leading Economic Indicators.

The immediate question is whether permits are the more reliable signal for housing this time? We’ll find out in due course. Meantime, one can reasonably ask why permits should deviate so sharply from starts at this particular moment? One answer that pops up is a familiar refrain: harsh winter weather.

That’s a reasonable explanation, at least for now. February certainly delivered more than its fair share of snow storms to various parts of the US. But while it was tough to launch new construction projects last month, filing permits with the local authorities was unaffected by Old Man Winter.

A bit of support for thinking that upward momentum will soon return to starts comes from looking at the implied growth, based on a variety of related metrics. Although The Capital Spectator’s median forecast for today’s report for starts was overly optimistic relative to the published number, a spectrum of data that generated the forecast suggests that construction activity should be improving a bit. That’s also what the latest permits number implies. The only unknown is when, of if, starts will take the hint. Tune in a month from now for the answer.

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