The Census Bureau reported higher housing starts figures in January, up to 699,000 from a revised 689,000 in December. This increase stemmed from multi-family home construction, which rose from 176,000 to 191,000. Single-family new starts fell from 513,000 to 508,000 for the month, and the number of completions fell sharply. On the bright side, housing permits for single family residences were up slightly — a sign of progress moving forward.
Note that many of the data points for 2011 were revised upward. Overall starts in November, for instance, topped 700,000 for the first time since October 2008. These figures clearly show an upward trajectory, with total housing starts up nearly 10 percent year-over-year. Regionally, gains in the South and West were somewhat offset by less new residential construction in the Northeast and Midwest. For January, though, only the Midwest had declines.
This news mirrors similar data released yesterday by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Its housing market index rose from 25 to 29. This represents a significant improvement in builder confidence in the past few months as the index was 14 in September. Single-family sales rose, and expectations are higher for the next six months.
NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe trumpets the positive trend, but he also cautions us to keep the numbers in perspective. “… it is important to remember that the HMI is still very low, and several factors continue to constrain the market. Foreclosures are still competing with new home sales, and many builders are seeing appraisals come in at less than the cost of construction. Additionally, prospective home buyers are finding it difficult to qualify for a mortgage.”
In other news today, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank reports continued improvements in manufacturing activity in its region. The index of general business conditions rose from 7.3 in January to 10.2 in February. This is the fifth consecutive month of expanding production, with higher measures for new orders, shipments and the average workweek. The rate of job growth eased, though, and inventories were shrinking. (The latter is a positive sign of the increased activity.) Pricing pressures accelerated.
Looking ahead six months, the respondents remained very positive about future activity, but less so than last month. The expectations index of general activity fell from 49.0 to 33.3. This coincided with lower values for new orders, shipments and capital spending plans. But, employment measures were stronger, suggesting an increased willingness to hire additional workers in the coming months. I would not overplay the news that this figure declined by too much, however, as it mostly reflects a settling in of the overall improving trend. Only 12.9 percent of those taking the survey expect for activity to decline in the next few months.
Overall, the numbers released today and yesterday highlight a recovering economy, with manufacturing leading the way. Improvements in housing are also a welcome sign, even as the sector remains below its historical averages.
Chad Moutray is chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.