Although the market action was restrained yesterday, one gets the feeling that it was the heat rather than the lack of news. There were at least two events worth commenting on.
The first was the Housing Starts figure, which at 836k (versus 960k expected) was about 13% worse than expected. As the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows, housing starts are now about 16% below the highs hit earlier this year. And the industry, while upbeat (see the NAHB upside surprise Tuesday), must be that way because of the perceived future business since the level of starts we are retreating from is only slightly above the level reached at the depths of the 1991 recession.
However, this is positive news both for investors in housing and for the economy as a whole. The decline in housing starts appears to be a price response to higher interest rates (it certainly isn't a response to a glut, as inventories are extremely low right now). It is terrific news that this is happening, because it is a rational response to higher interest rates on the part of spec builders (who are much more sensitive to financing than is the average homebuyer). On the chart below, I've added the 10-year Treasury yield (inverted).
Note that the correlation of levels from January 1990 to December 2006 is about -0.80: you can see the zig-zags line up pretty well, and remember this is not even mortgage rates but Treasury rates. But you can see that from 2003 to 2005 or so, Housing Starts continued to rise while interest rates were also rising. While it's on much less data, and clearly the intercept of the regression is very different, the correlation of these two series has resumed a fairly high inverse correlation (-0.68) since December 2008.
The growth news here isn't particularly good, since higher rates will clearly lead to fewer housing starts. It isn't horrible, since the construction and real estate industry is, after all, a much smaller part of the economy now than it was in the height of the bubble. But after all, that is how higher interest rates are supposed to impact growth – so it's natural, even if the Fed may not care for the messiness of nature.
In any event, less building translates into more support for prices in the existing housing market, which is good for homeowners and financial investors. Some economists will also expect the higher home prices to ignite further economic growth, via a "wealth effect," but I am skeptical of that in this case. In the mid-2000s, there was clearly a wealth effect from the home price boom, because the combination of higher prices and lower interest rates meant that consumers could cash out home equity to support additional spending.
But in the extant case, increasing home prices are occurring in conjunction with interest rates going up. In that circumstance, there will not be very much refinancing activity (why refinance into a higher rate mortgage?). So, is the wealth effect caused by wealth per se, or by wealth that can be drawn on and spent, via refinancing? I suspect it is the latter, which means that the higher wealth will have a much lower "wealth effect" coefficient going forward and some economists, and probably the Fed, will overestimate growth as a result.
Speaking of the Fed, the other event of the day was the start of Chairman Bernanke's final monetary policy report to the Congress – unless it turns out that he stays Chairman longer than expected, for example because no other candidate is found who can be confirmed and actually wants the job. Remember, this Chairman got to play Santa Claus; the next one gets to be Scrooge (pre-visitation).
For the most part, this was an unremarkable testimony. After being careful to ladle on the dovishness in good measure after the bond market reacted to the Fed's declaration that QE will be ending soon (not to mention, a lot of negative convexity in the market), there was no way that Bernanke was going to be anything but quite supportive.
But one part sort of struck me because it is a major departure from the line taken by all previous Fed chairmen. In the past, the Fed was generally willing to pursue a fairly accommodative monetary policy if fiscal policy was restrictive or at least responsible. Chairman Greenspan even made that promise explicit, and public, in 1995. (See here for background on that period.) And Bernanke himself, four years ago, admonished the Congress to "demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal sustainability in the longer term."
But Chairman Bernanke is now complaining about the effort to make mild cuts in government spending. Today he said that "fiscal policy is stunting the recovery," and that "the risks remain that tight federal fiscal policy will restrain economic growth over the next few quarters by more than we currently expect." (source)
To be clear, he is complaining about the fact that Federal expenditures over the last six months were only $1.688 trillion, compared to $1.717 trillion in the last six months of 2012. It isn't that there has been dramatic spending restraint due to the sequester – it has been, at best, very mild (we can get a more-generous figure by comparing against the first six months of 2012, in which case spending is down from $1.851 trillion…about 1% of GDP). Revenues are up, by about $202 billion with comparison against the year-ago period (about 1.25% of GDP). This is a drag, but it isn't a 2.25% drag because this is replaced at least in part elsewhere in the economy. Indeed, revenues are up and spending is down partly because the economy is doing better. It's called an automatic stabilizer…that's how it works.
In any event, if the Chairman of the Fed is going to whine when very moderate fiscal conservatism causes the economy to expand at only 1-2% per year, then what chance do we ever have of balancing the budget? Who is wearing the big boy pants? Ben, can I speak with your mommy?
And, if we're not going to even try very hard to balance the budget, what chance do we have to restrain inflation, once the tide has decisively turned? The answer is none. No chance at all, unless someone – or people generally – demand fiscal and monetary sanity be returned.