Blaming The Weather For The Economy

The sharp drop in confidence among home builders this month adds another disappointing number to the growing list of troubling economic updates. “Unusually severe weather conditions across much of the nation along with continued concerns over the cost and availability of labor and lots caused builder confidence in the market for newly-built, single-family homes to post a 10-point drop to 46 on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index,” NAHB reported yesterday.

Analysts are increasingly divided when it comes to interpreting the mounting wave of discouraging data. On one side are the optimists, who argue that it’s all about the weather. Once the warmer temperatures arrive, the US economy will perk up and the modest recovery will again reign supreme. This group still represents the majority. But there’s a small band of skeptics and with each new data point that falls short of expectations their doubts resonate a bit deeper. As usual, Zero Hedge leads the contrarian view:

This morning’s catastrophic drop in the National Association of Hope Home Builders sentiment index has rapidly been spun as due to the weather… of course, makes perfect sense, right? What would happen if these drops were actually real fundamentals? If the status quo, the “common knowledge” was shown to be full of shit (once again). Well, riddle us this Batman… if weather was to blame, then why did the “West” region plunge the most? In fact, why did The West plunge the most on record? Too much sunny dry weather not good for sales? In fact, even the entirely independent provider of real estate research Trulia said that weather is not to blame…

Mainstream economists aren’t blind to the risks. As Jim O’Sullivan at High Frequency Economics reminded: the weak report on home builder confidence “will keep alive concerns in the markets that the weakening in the data recently is not just due to weather.”

What’s beyond debate is that the harsh winter is taking a toll on the macro trend. Economists estimate that the weather will pinch growth by 0.3 percentage points, according to a survey published last week by CNBC.

University of Maryland economist Peter Morici put a positive spin on the outlook, telling the LA Times: “Folks that did not buy cars in January and February will purchase those in March and April. Buildings will be repaired and improved, and that adds, not subtracts from GDP.”

Meantime, this month’s lineup of discouraging economic releases includes nonfarm payrolls, personal income, ISM Manufacturing Index, industrial production and yesterday’s NAHB Housing Market Index. On its face, the numbers look damning, but the possibility that the spring will save the business cycle is a plausible theory. But it’s only a theory, and it could be wrong. But it’s going to take time to convincingly sort out reality. Perhaps once we have the March macro profile in hand we’ll have something approximating the truth. In other words, we won’t know much until April at the earliest.

“Numbers are affected by things like the weather, and winter this year has contributed to an unusual economic pattern,” reminded Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser. “I suspect it will be another couple months before we have an underlying read on the economy.”

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