Housing Starts: Yet Another Unexpected Thud, Down 11.2 Percent

Housing starts gave back all of their 3.2 percent increase in November and then some.

At what point does something turn from a thud to a crash? I suggest right now.

Economists in the Econoday survey expected a small increase in housing starts building on a rise in November. Instead, the BEA revised November down and starts fell another 11.2% on top of that.

Housing starts proved unexpectedly weak in December and will pull back residential investment in Thursday's GDP report. A strong offset, however, is steady strength in permits which are less impacted by weather or similar one-time effects.

Starts fell 11.2 percent in the month to a 1.078 million rate that is far below Econoday's consensus range. This compares with a long trend in the 1.200 to 1.300 million range and is the weakest showing since September 2016.

Wildfires in the West may be at play and are likely responsible at least in part for a 26.3 percent monthly drop in starts in the region to a 216,000 rate. But starts were also down 13.2 percent in the Midwest to a 125,000 rate with the South down 6.0 percent to 630,000. The Northeast was unchanged at 107,000.

Starts of single-family homes, down 6.7 percent, fell less severely than multi-units, down 20.4 percent. This should limit the pull lower for residential investment as single units have higher per unit construction costs than multi-units.

Now the good news in the report. Permits rose 0.3 percent in December to a 1.326 million rate that exceeds Econoday's high estimate for 1.305 million. Here, however, the single-family reading is down 2.2 percent to 829,000 while multi units are up 4.9 percent to 497,000. And here the West shows strength, up 17.1 percent to 383,000.

Today's report, a one that is truly mixed, points to trouble for immediate economic data -- particularly fourth-quarter GDP -- but also to building strength in coming data based on the strong showing for permits.

Truly Mixed?

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