Monday, April 30, 2007

Housing? What Housing? I Don't See Any Housing: Caroline Baum

nothing to add.... / dem ist nichts hinzuzuf├╝gen.....



April 30 (Bloomberg) -- Excluding housing, the U.S. economy is doing just fine.

That's the latest rationalization of a select group of operators who think that the Bush administration's 4.6 percentage point cut in the top marginal tax rate and 5-point reduction in the top capital gains rate can protect the economy from any and all ills.

To say that ex-housing the economy is doing just fine is tantamount to claiming that, ex-Iraq, Bush's Middle-East policy is a rousing success.

How valid is the claim that outside of housing everything is hunky dory? Let's go to the videotape to see how housing- centric the U.S. economy's weakness really is.

The Commerce Department reported Friday that real gross domestic product rose 1.3 percent in the first quarter, the slowest pace in four years. The year-over-year growth rate slipped to 2.1 percent, also a four-year low.

Investment in housing, the purported culprit, fell 17 percent, less than in the fourth quarter. Residential investment, as it's known in the GDP accounts, subtracted from growth for the sixth consecutive quarter, something that hasn't happened since 1980.

thanks to http://calculatedrisk.blogspot.com/

The first quarter's sluggish growth wasn't confined to housing, however. Exports declined, inventories were a small drag, and capital spending (investment in equipment and software) rebounded 1.9 percent -- better than expected based on monthly data on shipments but nothing to write home about after declines in the second and fourth quarters of last year.

``The initial weakness was in housing, but the weakness in capital spending is not a cross-infection from housing,'' says Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, New York.

Housing Plus
One year ago, capital spending was growing at a 9 percent year-over-year rate, he points out. Now it's zero.

``A year ago, people said capital spending was going to rescue us as housing slowed,'' he says. ``Capital spending is down to zero (year-on-year). There's been an unambiguous slowdown.''

In only one quarter of this entire expansion did capital spending add 1 percentage point or more to growth compared with an average contribution of 1 percentage point from the end of 1992 through the middle of 2000. The first-quarter contribution was 0.1 percentage point.

``Are businesses going to step up their pace of capital spending with the utilization rate falling and consumer demand slowing?'' asks Paul Kasriel, director of economic research at the Northern Trust Corp. in Chicago.

He clearly doesn't think so.

Boxes of Wallboard?
The American consumer keeps on trucking at a healthy pace. Consumer spending rose 3.8 percent last quarter, the only sector outside of government to contribute to growth.
Granted it's the biggest sector of the economy: 70 percent in 2006. But even the consumer is showing some signs of fatigue.

The rate of growth in retail sales has slowed in the past year, High Frequency's Shepherdson says. He uses a measure of core sales, which strips out building materials (the GDP ex- housing crowd can relate to that), price-driven food and gas, and autos, and is growing at a 4.7 percent pace now compared with 8.6 percent in March 2006.


Companies that haul the stuff consumers buy -- United Parcel Service, for example -- are reporting weakness in their domestic operations. UPS, the world's largest package-delivery company, said U.S. volume showed no change in the first quarter from a year ago.

``I don't think much of UPS's business is housing related,'' Kasriel says. ``They don't ship lumber, wallboard and toilets.'' ....

Excluding Everything
Another quarter of growth with a 1 percent handle is apt to make Fed officials nervous for the simple reason that there is no mandate for a recession with inflation running at 2-something percent. When growth is that slow, all it takes is a big quarterly inventory decline to thrust a negative sign in front of GDP, which in turn leads to a diminution in confidence.

While Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's reaction function is different than Alan Greenspan's -- he's not a politician, looks uncomfortable at hearings, and keeps his answers short and to the point -- he isn't immune to what's going on around him.

Imagine how it would look if Congress were to ask him to explain why the Fed let the economy slip into recession with inflation so low. Would Bernanke be able to keep a straight face when he told them that GDP ex-housing was solid?

Heck, GDP excluding consumer spending, business investment, housing and exports was robust in the Great Depression, too.

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1 Comments:

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