Here is the summary of this week’s Monday Economic Report:
Market leaders continue to play the guessing game of when the Federal Reserve Board will start to normalize short-term interest rates. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) will begin to raise the federal funds rate sometime in 2015 from the near-zero levels that have been prevalent since the financial crisis in 2008. The Federal Reserve has already announced that it will cease purchasing long-term and mortgage-backed securities in October. In the July FOMC meeting minutes, participants noted recent improvements in the economy, including increased activity among manufacturers (see below). Most notably, they said the following regarding monetary policy over the next few months:
“…many participants noted that if convergence toward the Committee’s objectives occurred more quickly than expected, it might become appropriate to begin removing monetary policy accommodation sooner than they currently anticipated.”
That line, which was widely reported in the media, was seen as hawkish. Indeed, financial markets saw that statement as a sign that short-term rates might rise sooner than expected, perhaps as early as the first quarter of 2015. In her keynote speech at a Kansas City Federal Reserve economic symposium at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen reiterated this point, noting the role that upcoming economic data will have on the timing of policy normalization. She cited continued “slack” in labor markets, but also highlighted positive developments more recently. Either way, it remains true that monetary policy will remain highly accommodative for the foreseeable future, with short-term rate hikes (whenever they occur) being gradual. Recent data on consumer and producer prices have shown inflationary pressures easing a bit, even as they remain near the Federal Reserve’s stated target of 2 percent.
Meanwhile, economic data released last week suggest that the manufacturing rebound that we have seen since the winter continues to strengthen. The Markit Flash U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) increased sharply, up from 55.8 in July to 58.0 in August, reaching its highest level since April 2010. The indices for new orders and production were both above 60, suggesting strong growth and closely mirroring similar data from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM). The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank’s manufacturing survey also reported healthy gains in August, with activity growing at its fastest pace in more than three years, and respondents were very upbeat in their assessment of the next six months. Still, if there are any weaknesses of note, it would be overseas. Manufacturing demand and output were softer in both China and Europe, for instance.
The housing market also appears to be faring better of late, recovering somewhat from the lull that we saw earlier in the year. Housing starts jumped 15.7 percent in July, offsetting significant declines in both May and June. Starts reached their second-highest pace since November 2007, with an annualized 1,093,000 units in July. Both single-family and multifamily construction activity were higher for the month, and housing permits also reflected progress. In addition, existing home sales also notched improved figures in July, with activity up for the fourth straight month. Overall, this is encouraging news for residential construction. We would expect a solid 1.1 million housing starts at the annual rate by year’s end, representing slow-but-steady progress.
This week, we will get an update on second-quarter real GDP, with consensus expectations calling for a slight downward revision from the 4.0 percent growth rate estimate announced in late July. The new figure would still represent a rebound from the first quarter’s decline of 2.1 percent. We will also see if regional activity continues to expand in the August manufacturing surveys from the Dallas, Richmond and Kansas City Federal Reserve Banks, mirroring what we have seen in the similar New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve reports. Other highlights include the latest data on consumer confidence, durable goods orders and personal income and spending.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.