WASHINGTON -- U.S. housing starts fell for a third straight month in February, but a rebound in building permits offered some hope for the housing market as it struggles to emerge from a soft patch.
The Commerce Department said Tuesday groundbreaking slipped 0.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 907,000 units.
That followed January's revised 11.2 percent decline and suggested underlying weakness in housing activity apart from the drag of cold weather. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%January starts were previously reported to have tumbled 16 percent.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected starts to rise to a 910,000 unit rate last month.
Groundbreaking plunged 37.5 percent in the Northeast last month, indicating unusually cold temperatures continued to dampen housing activity.
That was the biggest drop in more than two years and pushed starts in the Northeast to their lowest level since November 2012.
Starts also fell 5.5 percent in the West, which was unaffected by severe weather. The weather explanation for the weak housing data is challenged by a 7.3 percent rise in starts in the South and a 34.5 percent jump in the Midwest.
Housing started losing momentum last summer, with sales falling after a run-up in mortgage rates.
While mortgage rates have dropped a bit and the weather is starting to warm up, housing will probably take a while to regain strength as high prices and a shortage of homes on the market keep out potential buyers.
A report on Monday showed homebuilders were a bit optimistic in March but downbeat about sales over the next six months. Builders were also worried about shortages of lots and skilled labor, and rising prices for materials.
Groundbreaking for single-family homes, the largest segment of the market, rose 0.3 percent to a 583,000-unit pace last month. Starts for the volatile multi-family homes segment fell 1.2 percent to a 324,000-unit rate.
Permits to build homes increased 7.7 percent in February to a 1.02 million-unit pace. Permits for single-family homes fell 1.8 percent. Multifamily sector permits surged 24.3 percent.
9 Numbers That'll Tell You How the Economy's Really Doing
Housing Starts Fall, But Permits Rebound
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.