An unseasonably cold winter took its toll on economic activity at the start of 2014, causing many key market measures to fall short of initial forecasts. For example, first quarter GDP growth will likely prove to have been less than 1%. However, as winter turns to spring, we can expect a rebound as consumers undertake activities that may have been deferred at the start of the year.
Consistent with this situation, the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) was effectively flat in April, rising one point from a downwardly revised March level. At 47, the HMI has now been below the key level of 50 for three consecutive months.
The essentially unchanged index is the result of builders waiting on expected spring demand while holding any further optimism until actual sales occur. Many of the individual comments mentioned stronger traffic or more serious buyers, but the interest has yet turned into contract signings. Builders continue to meet some supply constraints as buildable lot supply either is not available or is priced beyond what the builder feels can be recaptured in a sale.
Housing starts for the month of March, as reported by the Census and HUD, indicated a 2.8% increase from the upwardly revised February numbers. On a seasonally adjusted annual basis, total single-family starts rose 6% to a 635,000 annual rate. The increase was particularly strong in the Northeast and Midwest, where building was down during recent winter months.
Builder hiring increased in March. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the residential construction sector added 9,100 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis in March. Total industry employment now stands at 2.242 million. And over the last 12 months, builders and remodelers have created 103,000 jobs.
Worker shortages remain an issue in some markets. However, the count of unfilled construction-sector jobs fell at the start of 2014. As of February, data from the BLS JOLTS survey indicate there were 120,000 open positions at construction firms, down from 165,000 in November. Nonetheless, the February open rate (2%), as measured as a percent of total industry employment, remained the fifth-highest mark since the recession ended.
The general improvement for housing markets can be tracked using the NAHB/First American Leading Market Index (LMI). The index, which measures how close markets are to their normal levels of activity, increased from 0.87 to 0.88 in April. The index measures single-family permits, home prices and employment in the past 12 months and divides that by the last normal annual level. For permits and prices, the last normal period is 2000-2003 and for employment 2007.
The LMI has been moving steadily upward for two years from a low of .78 in April 2012. At the same time, the number of markets at or above their last normal level of activity increased from 34, with 19 in energy-producing states, to 59, with 30 in energy-producing states (Texas, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wyoming). The slight broadening into states with other economic bases is consistent with broader economic growth in the U.S.
March BLS producer price data signals building material cost concerns as the housing recovery continues. Gypsum prices were effectively flat in March (0.9% decline), after a significant increase at the start of the year — the third year in a row of such prices increases. Gypsum prices are up 9.5% year over year. Softwood lumber products increased 1.7% in March, while OSB prices were effectively flat.
Over the past 12 months, prices on consumer expenditures increased 1.5%. Consumer prices increased in March by 0.2% on a seasonally adjusted month-over-month basis. The real rent index increased in March by 0.1% month over month and 1.2% for the year.
In analysis news, NAHB economists continued their look at home buyer preferences. The last review found that buyers of all backgrounds possess strong preferences for energy-efficient products.
Using IRS and Census data, economists examined the rising – although still small – market share of individuals who work at home, which represents a potential market opportunity for builders and remodelers. The data indicate clear geographic clustering of home office use among states and industries.