U.S. Homebuilder Confidence Surges in December

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Mike Groll/AP

U.S. homebuilders' confidence bounced back strongly this month, a sign that construction and industry hiring may pick up in coming months.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index released Tuesday climbed to 58. That was up from 54 in November and matched an eight-year high reached in August. Readings above 50 indicate that more builders view sales conditions as good than poor.

In addition, builders' view of current sales conditions jumped this month to the highest level in eight years. And their outlook for sales heading into next year's spring home-selling season also improved.

The index has stayed above 50 now for seven straight months after being below that level since May 2006. This month's reading is 11 points higher than a year ago. It reflects a U.S. housing market fueled by steady job growth and still-low mortgage rates.

The latest index suggests that builders remain optimistic that the housing recovery will endure even though mortgage rates have risen in recent months.

"The recent spike in mortgage interest rates has not deterred consumers as rates are still near historically low levels," %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%said David Crowe, the NAHB's chief economist. "We continue to look for a gradual improvement in the housing recovery in the year ahead."

Mortgage rates peaked at 4.6 percent in August and have stabilized since September, when the Federal Reserve surprised markets by taking no action on starting to reduce its bond purchases. Its bond purchases are intended to keep long-term interest rates low, including mortgage rates.

The Fed ends a two-day policy meeting Wednesday, after which it will release a statement and projections for the economy.

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said last week that the average rate on the 30-year loan declined to 4.42 percent from 4.46 percent a week earlier. In November last year, the average had dipped as low as 3.31 percent, the lowest on records dating to 1971.

Sales of new homes slowed over the summer after mortgage rates rose sharply and a tight supply of homes for sale boosted prices. The combination made home-buying less affordable.

But Americans ramped up purchases of new homes in October 25.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 444,000, according to the Commerce Department.

All told, sales of newly built homes have risen 21.6 percent for the 12 months ending in October. Still, the pace remains well below the 700,000 consistent with a healthy market.

And there are signs that builders are preparing for less growth. Approved permits to build single-family houses began to flat line in the spring, while spending on home construction spending fell 0.5 percent in October from September.

Still, the latest NAHB survey, which included responses from 346 builders, shows builders' outlook is rising again after dimming during the 16-day partial shutdown in October.

A measure of current sales conditions for single-family homes climbed six points to 64, the highest level since December 2005. Builders' outlook for single-family home sales over the next six months rose two points from November to 62, while a gauge of traffic by prospective buyers increased three points from last month to 44.

Though new homes represent only a fraction of the housing market, they have an outsize impact on the economy. Each home built creates an average of three jobs for a year and generates about $90,000 in tax revenue, according to data from the homebuilders association.

9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
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U.S. Homebuilder Confidence Surges in December
The gross domestic product measures the level of economic activity within a country. To figure the number, the Bureau of Economic Analysis combines the total consumption of goods and services by private individuals and businesses; the total investment in capital for producing goods and services; the total amount spent and consumed by federal, state, and local government entities; and total net exports. It's important, because it serves as the primary gauge of whether the economy is growing or not. Most economists define a recession as two or more consecutive quarters of shrinking GDP.
The CPI measures current price levels for the goods and services that Americans buy. The Bureau of Labor Statistics collects price data on a basket of different items, ranging from necessities like food, clothing and housing to more discretionary expenses like eating out and entertainment. The resulting figure is then compared to those of previous months to determine the inflation rate, which is used in a variety of ways, including cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other government benefits.
The unemployment rate measures the percentage of workers within the total labor force who don't have a job, but who have looked for work in the past four weeks, and who are available to work. Those temporarily laid off from their jobs are also included as unemployed. Yet as critical as the figure is as a measure of how many people are out of work and therefore suffering financial hardship from a lack of a paycheck, one key item to note about the unemployment rate is that the number does not reflect workers who have stopped looking for work entirely. It's therefore important to look beyond the headline numbers to see whether the overall workforce is growing or shrinking.
The trade deficit measures the difference between the value of a nation's imported and exported goods. When exports exceed imports, a country runs a trade surplus. But in the U.S., imports have exceeded exports consistently for decades. The figure is important as a measure of U.S. competitiveness in the global market, as well as the nation's dependence on foreign countries.
Each month, the Bureau of Economic Analysis measures changes in the total amount of income that the U.S. population earns, as well as the total amount they spend on goods and services. But there's a reason we've combined them on one slide: In addition to being useful statistics separately for gauging Americans' earning power and spending activity, looking at those numbers in combination gives you a sense of how much people are saving for their future.
Consumers play a vital role in powering the overall economy, and so measures of how confident they are about the economy's prospects are important in predicting its future health. The Conference Board does a survey asking consumers to give their assessment of both current and future economic conditions, with questions about business and employment conditions as well as expected future family income.
The health of the housing market is closely tied to the overall direction of the broader economy. The S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index, named for economists Karl Case and Robert Shiller, provides a way to measure home prices, allowing comparisons not just across time but also among different markets in cities and regions of the nation. The number is important not just to home builders and home buyers, but to the millions of people with jobs related to housing and construction.
Most economic data provides a backward-looking view of what has already happened to the economy. But the Conference Board's Leading Economic Index attempts to gauge the future. To do so, the index looks at data on employment, manufacturing, home construction, consumer sentiment, and the stock and bond markets to put together a complete picture of expected economic conditions ahead.
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