Residential construction activity tumbled 11% last month, falling at a deeper rate than expected, the US Census Bureau reports. The news adds another dovish factor into the analysis for the already wobbly outlook for a rate hike at next month’s Fed policy meeting. Newly issued building permits rose in October, offering a positive counterpoint to the slide in new housing starts, which was led lower by a slump in multi-family units. But to the extent that there’s a bullish spin to promote, it fades when reviewing the year-over-year comparisons.
Indeed, housing starts fell 1.8% in October vs. the year-earlier level—the first case of red ink in the annual comparison since March. Permits are still advancing in year-over-year terms, but the rise has dwindled to a thin 2.7% gain.
The bottom line: housing activity has slowed, suggesting that this critical corner of the economy will provide less support for the economy, if any, in the near-term future.
“Housing is still really in a slow grind higher, and at the very least it’s stable,” Gennadiy Goldberg, US rates strategist at TD Securities, tells Bloomberg. “Ongoing strength in permits is really a hint that you are going to get more construction.”
Perhaps, but it’s hard to project much more than mild growth. Permits are considered a leading indicator for starts and so the positive comparisons on this front for the monthly and annual changes offer support for thinking positively. But even the bulls have to concede that housing’s growth trend is sluggish at best. And that’s the bullish narrative.
But hope springs eternal. “We’re confident that the broader housing market recovery will continue,” Tom Wind, executive vice-president of home lending at EverBank, advises via Reuters. The problem is that the data isn’t terribly supportive of that forecast at the moment.
The home building industry, however, tends to favor Wind’s outlook. Yesterday’s November update of the Housing Market Index, a measure of sentiment among builders, eased lower after touching a ten-year high in October. “Even with this month’s drop, builder confidence has remained in the 60s for six straight months — a sign that the single-family housing market is making long-term headway,” says Tom Woods, chairman of the National Assoc. of Home Builders, the trade group that publishes the data.
But no matter how much you spin the numbers it’s hard to make the case that housing is growing at a solid clip. The future may bring better news, but the rear-view mirror looks a bit shaky at the moment.