US: Housing Starts

Fri Mar 16 07:30:00 CDT 2018

Consensus Consensus Range Actual Previous Revised
Starts - Level - SAAR 1.285M 1.256M to 1.322M 1.236M 1.326M 1.329M
Permits - Level - SAAR 1.322M 1.300M to 1.392M 1.298M 1.396M 1.377M

Home sales turned lower in January as did housing starts and permits in February, and noticeably so. Housing starts fell 7.0 percent in the month to a much lower-than-expected annualized rate of 1.236 million while building permits fell 5.7 percent to 1.298 million which is also much lower than expected.

Single-family homes are the key component in this report and permits fell 0.6 percent to an 872,000 rate. Year-on-year growth remains in the mid-single digits but is now under 5 percent at 4.6 percent. In a positive, single-family starts, which are key to restocking the new home market, rose 2.9 percent to a 902,000 rate which is up 2.9 percent from this time last year. And single-family completions rose 3.0 percent in the month to 895,000 and will offer immediate supply to the market.

Multi-family permits fell 14.8 percent but at a 426,000 rate are still up 10.6 percent year-on-year. Starts, however, fell 26.1 percent to 334,000 and are down a yearly 18.7 percent. Completions here are also positive, up 19.4 percent to a 424,000 rate.

Besides completions, another positive is homes under construction, up fractionally to 1.115 million which is a new expansion high. But the bulk of this report is unexpectedly soft and confirms that the housing sector, despite strong year-end momentum and a very strong jobs market, opened 2018 on the defense, getting no help from rising mortgage rates which are at 4 year highs.

Market Consensus Before Announcement
Less strength is the expectation for February housing starts where the consensus is a 1.285 million annualized rate vs January's 1.326 million, as well as for housing permits, at a consensus 1.322 million rate vs 1.377 million. Starts and permits both surged in January led by the key single-family component. Note that the consensus ranges for both are wide.

A housing start is registered at the start of construction of a new building intended primarily as a residential building. The start of construction is defined as the beginning of excavation of the foundation for the building.

Two words...Ripple Effect. This narrow piece of data has a powerful multiplier effect through the economy, and therefore across the markets and your investments. By tracking economic data such as housing starts, investors can gain specific investment ideas as well as broad guidance for managing a portfolio.

Home builders usually don't start a house unless they are fairly confident it will sell upon or before its completion. Changes in the rate of housing starts tell us a lot about demand for homes and the outlook for the construction industry. Furthermore, each time a new home is started, construction employment rises, and income will be pumped back into the economy. Once the home is sold, it generates revenues for the home builder and a myriad of consumption opportunities for the buyer. Refrigerators, washers and dryers, furniture, and landscaping are just a few things new home buyers might spend money on, so the economic "ripple effect" can be substantial especially when you think of it in terms of more than a hundred thousand new households around the country doing this every month.

Since the economic backdrop is the most pervasive influence on financial markets, housing starts have a direct bearing on stocks, bonds and commodities. In a more specific sense, trends in the housing starts data carry valuable clues for the stocks of home builders, mortgage lenders, and home furnishings companies. Commodity prices such as lumber are also very sensitive to housing industry trends.

The housing starts report is the most closely followed report on the housing sector. Housing starts reflect the commitment of builders to new construction activity. Purchases of household furnishings and appliances quickly follow.

The bond market will rally when housing starts decrease, but bond prices will fall when housing starts post healthy gains. A strong housing market is bullish for the stock market because the ripple effect of housing to consumer durable purchases spurs corporate profits. In turn, low interest rates encourage housing construction.

The level as well as changes in housing starts reveals residential construction trends. Housing starts are subject to substantial monthly volatility, especially during winter months. It takes several months to establish a trend. Thus, it is useful to look at a 5-month moving average (centered) of housing starts.

It is useful to examine the trends in construction activity for single homes and multi-family units separately because they can deviate significantly. Single-family home-building is larger and less volatile than multi-family construction. It is more sensitive to interest rate changes and less speculative in nature. The construction of multi-family units can be substantially influenced by changes in the tax code and speculative real estate investors.

Housing construction varies by region as well. The regions of the United States do not all follow exactly the same economic patterns because industry concentration varies in the four major regions of the country. The regional dispersion can mask underlying trends. The total level of housing construction as well as the regional distribution of housing construction is important.

Housing permits are released together with housing starts every month and are considered a leading indicator of starts. In reality, housing permits and starts typically move in tandem each month. However, there are some exceptions. For instance, if permits are issued late in the month, and weather does not permit immediate excavation, then permits might lead starts. For the most part, though, permits are not a good predictor of future housing starts. Incidentally, housing permits (but not starts) are one of the ten components of the index of leading indicators compiled by The Conference Board.