July Housing Starts and Permits

Joel L. Naroff
President and Chief Economist

INDICATOR: July Housing Starts and Permits
KEY DATA: Starts: -1.5%; 5+ Units: +6.3%; Permits: -3.2%;

IN A NUTSHELL: “Home construction may not be the leader of the pack but it no longer looks like it will hold things back.”

WHAT IT MEANS: Housing activity is a key factor in the sluggish recovery and there are no great expectations that the sector will return to being robust for quite a while. Given that reality, what I have been looking for is the sector to move forward at a pace which will actually add to growth and that may be happening. After a solid rise in June, there was a modest decline in construction in July. To me, this represents not a backward movement but a solidification of the gains that were made. Housing starts are also up nearly 10% from July 2010, so maybe the improvement is really underway. The multifamily segment rose strongly and since rental housing looks to be the place to be given the inability to buy new homes, this is a good sign that the market is working. Improvement was seen in the East and West. However, a large decline in the Midwest largely created the drop in housing starts. Was weather a factor? That is not clear but a nearly 23% fall off seems to point to a special circumstance not a trend. There was a much more moderate decline in the South. Looking forward, permit requests also eased back but again they are up compared to last year. The number of homes under construction continues to drop, which is disturbing as it implies payrolls are not rising. This is due to the large number of houses that have been completed recently.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: Housing is coming back slowly but it is coming back. We too often forget that most of the problems arose in just a handful of major construction regions. A large part of the country did not participate in the housing bubble at nearly the same pace and are now beginning to come back. Don’t expect to see strong levels of construction anytime soon as the areas where so much of the construction used to take place are where the excess supply due to the distressed housing inventory exists. But if we see housing starts rise in other areas, which is most of the rest of the nation, then we know the sector is healing. I think that process has begun and I am buoyed by that. As for investors, the world is now the worry, especially Europe even as it appears the U.S. economy is beginning to show that it remains quite resilient. Watch August vehicle sales. With demand up in July, a good sales pace would signal the consumer is spending better than expected and with construction in the positive column, we could see third quarter growth better than the weak pace most economists now project.
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