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Economic Watch: Durable Goods Orders Sink as New Home Sales Jump

January 28, 2016

By Evan Lockridge

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New orders for long-lasting durable goods plunged in December while shipments also fell, according to an advance report on Thursday from the U.S. Commerce Department, following a decision by the Federal Reserve to not raise a key interest rate.

The 5.1% drop in new orders for everything from autos to clothes washers from the month before is the fourth decline in the past five months. This this latest figure is well below many analyst expectations, while November’s performance was revised downward for a 0.5% drop.

New orders for transportation equipment, also down four out of the last five months, led the December decline, falling 12.4%. When they are excluded, new orders fell 1.2%.

Also, a closely watched indicator of future business investment, new orders for capital goods excluding aircraft and defense items, fell 4.3% after November’s performance was revised downward for a 1.1% decline.

Shipments of durable goods fell 2.2% overall in December following a 0.6% increase in November. It was also led by transportation equipment, which posted a 6.7% drop.

Another concern is that inventories of durable goods increased 0.5% in December following five months of declines. That's a possible indication near-term new orders and shipments could remain lower.

The third consecutive drop in shipments of nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft in December, alongside an even larger drop in orders, leaves the measure down an annualized 5.8% in the fourth quarter as a whole, according to Nathan Janzen, senior economist at RBC Economics.

“That marks the first quarterly decline since the first quarter of 2015 and the largest since third quarter of 2013,” he said. “A continued deterioration in the capital goods trade balance in fourth quarter data to date suggests that part of the weakness reflects slower external rather than domestic demand, a likely consequence of the stronger U.S. dollar, however, today’s report is also pointing to a modest decline in domestic equipment investment in fourth quarter."

Another Interest Rate Hike Still In The Cards

The report follows an announcement Wednesday from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee in which it said it was leaving a key interest rate unchanged following its first hike in years, which took place last month.

The lack of action in boosting the target for the federal funds rate, the interest rate banks charge each other for overnight loans, of 0.25% to 0.50% came as policymakers acknowledged the weakening of economic activity in the fourth quarter of 2015. However, they do not expect this slowing to persist in 2016. Rather, they anticipate that both economic growth and labor market conditions will improve.

The Fed is certainly not ruling out a second rate increase in March and remains relatively optimistic about the outlook of the economy, according to Lindsey Piegza, chief economist with Stifel Fixed Income.

“The labor market is improving at a ‘solid’ rate, and while inflation remains well below the committee’s longer-term target, as it has for years, most feel the pressures keeping inflation at these low levels will prove transitory in the medium-term,” she said. “Furthermore, while the committee is ‘monitoring’ international developments, there was no acknowledgement of an increased risk of contagion suggesting recent concerns in the marketplace over falling energy prices and a slowdown in China are unlikely to deter the Fed from their commitment to a ‘gradual’ rise in rates over the next 12-24 months.”

Housing Keeps Booming

One area of the economy the Fed says continue to improve is housing. In fact, a report released on Wednesday shows new homes sale in 2015 were the best in eight years.

Sales of newly built, single-family homes rose 14.55% to 501,000 units in 2015, the highest level since 2007, according to the Commerce Department.

Also sales in December increased 10.8%, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 544,000 from an upwardly revised November reading.

“Relatively low interest rates and an improving economy are motivating buyers to make a new-home purchase,” said National Association of Homebuilders Chief Economist David Crowe. “Builders are upping their inventory in response to heightened consumer interest. Housing inventory is now at its highest level since October 2009.”

New residential sales made up less than 10% of the housing market in 2015, however, when combined with existing single-family home sales, the number of total single-family homes sold in 2015 reached an eight-year high, according to RBC Economics.

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