Sunday, June 14, 2009

Production Probably Fell, Housing Gained: U.S. Economy Preview

Reports on manufacturing and housing this week will probably offer evidence that the recession- stricken U.S. economy is within months of hitting bottom, economists said.

A 1 percent drop in industrial production in May, based on the median of 68 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey, was due mainly to auto-industry shutdowns that swamped gains elsewhere, analysts said. Other reports may show builders began work on more houses as sales steadied and consumer prices rose.

The fallout from bankruptcies at Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. is likely to reverberate through the industry and the economy in coming months, even as other areas stabilize. Plunging home prices, near-record low mortgage rates and tax credits for first-time buyers may help bring an end to the worst residential construction slump in seven decades.

“With Chrysler closing and GM downsizing, it’s going to be pretty ugly,” said Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pennsylvania. Still, “we’re in the process of hitting the trough of the recession, which we’ll probably see within the next few months.”

A decrease in the Federal Reserve’s production figures, due June 16, would be the 16th in the last 17 months. The report is also projected to show the proportion of plant capacity in use probably dropped to 68.4 percent, the lowest since records began in 1967, according to the survey median.

Plant Shutdowns

Chrysler shut all its plants on May 1 to clear as many unsold vehicles as possible from dealer lots while it restructures. The sale of most of Chrysler’s assets to a group led by Italian automaker Fiat SpA was completed last week.

GM, the biggest U.S. automaker, said June 1 it is stopping work at 14 plants as it restructures under Chapter 11.

General Electric Co. is among companies starting to see some improvement in economic conditions. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Immelt said at a conference last week that government efforts to thaw credit are starting to pay off, making it easier for companies to borrow.

“Capital markets have largely healed,” Immelt said. “As a company you have to invest now. You have to invest when things are darkest.” Immelt predicted the economic recovery will be slower than that following the 1982 recession, the last slump that approached the severity of the current downturn.

One positive aspect of the excess in capacity is that it will help control inflation should raw-material costs keep rising, economists say. Consumer prices probably rose 0.3 percent in May as gasoline prices climbed, according to the survey median before a Labor Department report on June 17.

Less Inflation

Core consumer prices, which exclude food and energy, rose 0.1 percent in May after a 0.3 percent gain the prior month, according to the survey.

“The slack in resource utilization remains sizable, and, notwithstanding recent increases in the prices of oil and other commodities, cost pressures generally remain subdued,” Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told Congress on June 3. “We anticipate that inflation will remain low.”

Concern over the amount of money the Fed has pumped into financial markets and the size of upcoming government security auctions to pay for stimulus efforts has caused interest rates on Treasuries to shoot higher in recent weeks.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year note reached 3.95 percent at the close on June 10, after being as low as 2.54 percent on March 18, the day the Fed announced it would buy Treasury securities in a bid to push borrowing costs down.

Housing Steadies

The housing recession that triggered the credit crisis and global slump is showing signs of bottoming as sales and construction have stabilized near historically low levels.

A Commerce Department report on June 16 may show housing starts last month rose 5.9 percent to a 485,000 annual pace from the prior month’s five-decade low, while permits rose to 509,000 from the prior month’s record low of 498,000.

Builders are still hurting after having to mark down prices in an effort to spur demand. Toll Brothers Inc. and Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. last week both reported their second-quarter losses exceeded analysts’ estimates.

“There is no question we’ve come down a pretty steep hill,” Michael Feder, chief executive officer of Radar Logic Inc., a research and analytics company that tracks home prices, said in a Bloomberg Television interview on June 10. Still, stabilization in home values in recent months is “in great contrast to last year,” he said.

Figures from the Conference Board may point to recovery later in the year. The New York-based private research group’s index of leading economic indicators, due June 18, probably rose for a second month in May, according to the survey median. It would be the first back-to-back increase since September-October 2006. The gauge signals the direction of the economy over the next three to six months.