US Housing Data Signals Economic Strength

US housing starts in November rebounded from a seven-month low and permits surged to a five-month high, signs of strength in the housing market that could give the Federal Reserve more confidence to raise interest rates on Wednesday.

Groundbreaking jumped 10.5 per cent to a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 1.17 million units last month, the Commerce Department said. Building permits vaulted 11 per cent to a 1.29 million-unit rate, the highest level since June.

With permits running ahead of starts, home building is likely to remain supported in the months ahead.

Fed officials resumed a two-day monetary policy meeting on Wednesday. The US central bank is expected to raise its benchmark overnight interest rate from near zero at the end of the meeting in what would be the first rate hike in nearly a decade.

An increase in borrowing costs is not expected to derail the housing recovery.

The third straight monthly decline in industrial output also reflected another sharp fall in mining production, driven by a plunge in oil and gas well drilling. Manufacturing output was unchanged. However, motor vehicle production fell for the first time since August, a worrying signal for manufacturing.

“We expect the auto sector to remain a drag on total production in coming months. On balance, manufacturing activity is likely to remain weak as the US economy is still adjusting to the shocks of lower energy prices and weaker foreign demand,” said Laura Rosner, an economist at BNP Paribas in New York.

Strong housing fundamentals

November marked the eighth straight month that housing starts remained above 1 million units, the longest stretch since 2007. Economists expect starts to average around 1.1 million units for 2015, which would be the highest level since 2007 and up from 1.0 million units in 2014.

Robust household formation as labor market strength encourages young adults to leave their childhood homes is underpinning the housing market recovery.

But the sector remains constrained by a persistent shortage of houses available for sale. This has resulted in home prices rising faster than salaries, pushing more people toward renting.

“Tight inventories and high prices will provide the incentives for builders to continue ramping up activity,” said Greg Daco, head of US macroeconomics at Oxford Economics in New York.

Single-family housing starts, the largest segment of the market, increased 7.6 per cent to a 768,000-unit pace. That was the highest reading since January 2008. Activity was probably also boosted by mild weather. Groundbreaking on single-family projects rose in the South, Northeast and West, but fell in the Midwest.

Starts for the volatile multi-family segment surged 16.4 per cent to a 405,000-unit pace. The multi-family segment has been the driver of residential construction, but a shift toward single-family homes is expected in 2016.

“Homebuilders are making progress addressing the shortage of newer vintage single-family homes we see in many markets, especially affordable housing products with a price of under-$200,000,” said Tian Liu, chief economist at Genworth Mortgage Insurance in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Permits for the construction of single-family homes increased 1.1 per cent last month to their highest level since December 2007. Multi-family building permits soared 26.9 per cent.