Construction Spending Slips in August After July's Jump

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construction spending august
Keith Srakocic/AP
By MARTIN CRUTSINGER

WASHINGTON -- U.S. construction spending fell in August, the second decline in the past three months, with housing, non-residential and government projects all showing weakness.

Construction spending dropped a seasonally adjusted 0.8 percent after a 1.2 percent increase in July, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. The July increase followed a 1.6 percent June decline.

The weakness was apparent in all sectors. Housing construction declined 0.1 percent, reflecting a big drop in spending on remodeling. Non-residential construction fell 1.4 percent while spending on government projects dropped 0.9 percent.

In addition to the August decline, the government revised lower its estimates for activity in the previous two months. This could call into question expectations that building activity will support economic growth in the second half of the year.

Overall construction spending totaled $960.96 billion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate in August, 5 percent higher than a year ago.

Spending on housing totaled $351.7 billion at an annual rate in August, 3.7 percent higher than a year ago. The August decline reflected a 14 percent drop in home remodeling work. Spending to construct new single-family homes rose 0.7 percent and apartment construction was up 1.4 percent.

Spending on non-residential projects totaled $333.3 billion, 9.2 percent higher than a year ago. In August, spending on office buildings, shopping centers and hospital construction all declined.

Government building projects totaled $253.4 billion, just 1.9 percent higher than a year ago. Construction activity at all levels of government has been held back by tight budgets. For August, state and local construction spending was down 0.9 percent while federal projects dropped 1.9 percent.

The overall economy went into reverse in the first three months of the year, shrinking at an annual rate of 2.1 percent, in part because of weakness in construction. Housing construction was contracting at a 5.3 percent rate in the first quarter, one of a number of sectors that were hurt by the unusually severe winter.

The economy rebounded in the April-June quarter, growing at an annual rate of 4.6 percent, the best showing in more than two years. Part of the rebound reflected a recovery in residential construction, which grew at an annual rate of 8.8 percent in the spring, the first positive growth after two quarters of declines.

Economists are hoping that construction will continue to grow in the July-September quarter and that will provide support for the overall economy. Economists are forecasting growth of around 3 percent in the gross domestic product for the third quarter but the recent weakness in construction spending could cause revisions in those estimates.

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Construction Spending Slips in August After July's Jump
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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