U.S. weekly jobless claims at 14-month low; inflation heating up

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits dropped to a 14-month low last week as companies held onto their workers amid a growing labor shortage that helped to curb employment growth in April.

The scramble for workers comes as the reopening economy is experiencing a boom in demand, resulting in widespread shortages of inputs at factories and fanning inflation. Producer prices increased more than expected in April, leading to the biggest annual gain since 2010, other data showed on Thursday.

The worker shortage is despite nearly 10 million Americans being officially unemployed, a disconnect that economists expect will resolve in the coming months as increased vaccinations ease COVID-19 stress and enhanced unemployment benefits expire, allowing some workers to return to the labor market.

“With demand for workers high and layoffs relatively low, we should see strong hiring in the months to come, as barriers to employment, such as lack of childcare, lessen,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “For many, especially low-wage workers, returning to a job is a puzzle in which several pieces, such as transportation, wage levels and benefits must fall into place.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 34,000 to a seasonally adjusted 473,000 for the week ended May 8, the Labor Department said. That was the lowest since mid-March 2020, when mandatory closures of nonessential businesses were enforced to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 490,000 applications for the latest week. The decrease in claims was led by Michigan, New York and Florida.

Claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020, but remain well above the 200,000 to 250,000 range that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market.

Some economists believe the enhanced unemployment benefits programs, including a weekly $300 government subsidy, could be encouraging some people to attempt to file a claim for assistance, though not every application is approved.

The economy created 266,000 jobs in April after adding 770,000 in March, which was partly blamed on the generous unemployment benefits. There are a record 8.1 million open jobs.

Several states in the South and Midwest, such as Tennessee and Missouri, that have unemployment rates below the national average of 6.1% have recently announced they will end federally funded pandemic unemployment benefits next month.

Economists cite the still-bloated jobless rolls as supporting the thesis that unemployment checks were keeping some workers home. There were 3.655 million people receiving benefits after an initial week in the week ended May 1, down 45,000 from the prior week. A total 16.9 million people were collecting unemployment checks under all programs at the end of April.

The government-funded benefits end in early September.

Richmond Federal Reserve president Thomas Barkin said on Thursday, “the question of how to unclog the labor market is going to be a critical one,” in keeping the recovery on track.

Stocks on Wall Street rebounded on the claims data after declining for three straight sessions. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

DEMAND BOOM

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in pandemic relief over the past year. More than a third of the population has been fully vaccinated, leading many states to lift most capacity restrictions on businesses.

The resulting pent-up demand is pushing against supply constraints. In another report on Thursday, the Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand rose 0.6% in April after surging 1.0% in March.

A 0.6% increase in the cost of services accounted for about two-thirds of the rise in the PPI. Services, which increased 0.7% in March, were last month driven by higher prices for portfolio management, airline tickets and food retailing as well as physician care.

Goods prices gained 0.6%, lifted by an 18.4% jump in steel mill products. In the 12 months through April, the PPI shot up 6.2%. That was the biggest year-on-year rise since the series was revamped in November 2010 and followed a 4.2% jump in March.

Part of acceleration in the PPI was due to last spring’s weak readings dropping out of the calculation. The report followed on the heels of news on Wednesday that consumer prices increased by the most in nearly 12 years in April.

Though rising prices have spooked investors, the Federal Reserve has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation for some time to offset years in which inflation was lodged below its 2% target, a flexible average.

Fed Vice Chair Richard Clarida said on Wednesday it would be “some time” before the economy is healed enough for the U.S. central bank to consider scaling back its support. The Fed slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero last year and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. Its preferred inflation measure, the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index is at 1.8%.

“Each big inflation report for the next several months will test the Fed’s approach to seeing through these issues it promises to be transitory,” said Will Compernolle, a senior economist at FHN Financial in New York.

Based on the CPI and PPI data, Goldman Sachs is forecasting that core PCE increased 0.49% in April and 3.38% year-on-year.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. consumer prices post biggest gain in nearly 12 years as inflation pressures build

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. consumer prices increased by the most in nearly 12 years in April as booming demand amid a reopening economy pushed against supply constraints, which could fuel financial market fears of a lengthy period of higher inflation.

The report from the Labor Department on Wednesday also showed a strong building up of underlying price pressures. Demand is being driven by nearly $6 trillion in government relief since the COVID-19 pandemic started in the United States in March 2020 and the vaccination of more than a third of the population.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many economists largely view higher inflation as transitory, with supply chains expected to adapt and become more efficient. But there are concerns that inflation could linger amid reports that companies are raising wages as they compete for scarce workers.

Though job openings are at a record 8.1 million and nearly 10 million people are officially unemployed, companies are scrambling for labor. Generous unemployment benefits, fears of contracting COVID-19, parents still at home caring for children and pandemic-related retirements have been blamed for the disconnect. Average hourly earnings jumped in April.

The consumer price index jumped 0.8% last month, the largest gain since June 2009. The CPI rose 0.6% in March. Food prices increased 0.4%. The cost of food consumed at home also gained 0.4%. The cost of food consumed away from home rose 0.3%. Gasoline prices fell 1.4% after accelerating 9.1% in March.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the CPI climbing 0.2% in April.

In the 12 months through April, the CPI shot up 4.2%. That was the largest gain since September 2008 and followed a 2.6% increase in March. The jump mostly reflected the dropping of last spring’s weak readings from the calculation.

Those so-called base effects are expected to push annual inflation even higher in the months ahead.

U.S. stock index futures extended losses on the data, which investors feared could force the Fed to raise interest rates sooner than expected. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

The Fed slashed its benchmark overnight interest rate to near zero and is pumping money into the economy through monthly bond purchases. The U.S. central bank has signaled it could tolerate higher inflation after years of lower inflation.

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the CPI soared 0.9%, the largest gain since April 1982. The so-called core CPI rose 0.3% in March. There were increases in prices for used cars and trucks, shelter, airline fares, recreation, motor vehicle insurance as well as household furnishings.

In the 12 months through April, the core CPI jumped 3.0% after increasing 1.6% in March.

The Fed tracks the core personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index for its 2% inflation target, a flexible average. The core PCE price index is at 1.8%.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Andrea Ricci)

Stimulus checks boost U.S. consumer spending; inflation warming up

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. consumer spending rebounded in March amid a surge in income as households received additional COVID-19 pandemic relief money from the government, building a strong foundation for a further acceleration in consumption in the second quarter.

Other data on Friday showed labor costs jumped by the most in 14 years in the first quarter, driven by a pick-up in wage growth as companies competed for workers to boost production. The White House’s massive $1.9 trillion fiscal stimulus and rapidly improving public health are unleashing pent-up demand.

“While we aren’t completely out of the woods yet, today’s report shows the beginning of an economic rebound,” said Brendan Coughlin, head of consumer banking at Citizens in Boston. “Assuming no setback in the continued rollout of the vaccines, U.S. consumers are well-positioned in the second half of the year to stimulate strong economic growth across the country.”

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased 4.2% last month after falling 1.0% in February, the Commerce Department said. The increase was broadly in line with economists’ expectations.

The data was included in Thursday’s gross domestic product report for the first quarter, which showed growth shooting up at a 6.4% annualized rate in the first three months of the year after rising at a 4.3% pace in the fourth quarter. Consumer spending powered ahead at a 10.7% rate last quarter.

Most Americans in the middle- and low-income brackets received one-time $1,400 stimulus checks last month which were part of the pandemic rescue package approved in March. That boosted personal income 21.1% after a drop of 7.0% in February.

A chunk of the cash was stashed away, with the saving rate soaring to 27.6% from 13.9% in February. Households have amassed at least $2.2 trillion in excess savings, which could provide a powerful tailwind for consumer spending this year and beyond.

The government’s generosity and expansion of the COVID-19 vaccination program to include all American adults is lifting consumer spirits, with a measure of household sentiment rising to a 13-month high in April.

Wages are also increasing, which should to help to underpin spending when stimulus boost fades.

In a separate report on Friday, the Labor Department said its Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, jumped 0.9% in the first quarter. That was the largest rise since the second quarter of 2007.

The ECI is widely viewed by policymakers and economists as one of the better measures of labor market slack and a predictor of core inflation as it adjusts for composition and job quality changes. Last quarter’s increase was driven by a 1.0% rise in wages, also the biggest gain in 14 years.

Wages in the accommodation and food services industry, hardest hit by the pandemic, soared 1.7%.

Despite employment being 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020, businesses are struggling to find qualified workers as they rush to meet the robust domestic demand.

U.S. stocks were lower after a recent rally. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

INFLATION RISING

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Wednesday acknowledged the worker shortage saying “one big factor would be schools aren’t open yet, so there’s still people who are at home taking care of their children, and would like to be back in the workforce, but can’t be yet.”

Economists agree and expect the rising wages to contribute to higher inflation this year.

The strengthening demand and the dropping of last year’s weak readings from the calculation lifted inflation last month.

The personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding the volatile food and energy component increased 0.4% after edging up 0.1% in February. In the 12 months through March, the so-called core PCE price index increased 1.8%, the most since February 2020.

The core PCE price index is the Fed’s preferred inflation measure for its 2% target, which is a flexible average.

Powell reiterated on Wednesday that he expected higher inflation will transitory. But some economists have doubts.

“While labor costs are hardly getting out of hand, there is clearly more wage pressure in the economy at present than the early stages of the past cycle,” said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“Stronger labor cost growth even before the economy hits full employment is a reason to think that even after the reopening-fueled pop this year, inflation is likely to settle above the anemic rate of the past cycle.”

Households last month spent more on motor vehicles and recreational. They also visited restaurants.

When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending rebounded 3.6% last month after falling 1.2% in February. The rebound in the so-called real consumer spending sets consumption on a higher growth trajectory heading into the second quarter.

Most economists expect double-digit growth this quarter, which would position the economy to achieve growth of at least 7%, which would be the fastest since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, its worst performance in 74 years.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

U.S. labor costs accelerate in the first quarter

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. labor costs increased more than expected in the first quarter as wage growth picked up, further evidence that inflation will push higher this year as the economy reopens.

The Employment Cost Index, the broadest measure of labor costs, jumped 0.9% last quarter after gaining 0.7% in the October-December quarter. That lifted the year-on-year rate of increase to 2.6% from 2.5% in the fourth quarter.

The ECI is widely viewed by policymakers and economists as one of the better measures of labor market slack and a predictor of core inflation as it adjusts for composition and job quality changes. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the ECI rising 0.7% in the first quarter.

Wages and salaries shot up 1.0% after advancing 0.8% in the fourth quarter. They were up 2.7% year-on-year. Economists expect wages will increase further in the second quarter as companies compete for scarce workers.

Despite employment being 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020, businesses are struggling to find suitable workers as they rush to meet robust domestic demand.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Wednesday acknowledged the worker shortage saying “one big factor would be schools aren’t open yet, so there’s still people who are at home taking care of their children, and would like to be back in the workforce, but can’t be yet.”

Higher wages, if the worker scarcity persists, could contribute to boosting inflation this year, though many economists and Powell believe the anticipated surge in price pressures as the broader economy reopens will be transitory.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani)

Fiscal stimulus powers U.S. economic growth in first quarter

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. economic growth accelerated in the first quarter as the government gave money to mostly lower-income households, fueling consumer spending and setting the course for what is expected to be the strongest performance this year in nearly four decades.

The government largesse also extended to businesses, especially in the high-contact services industry. The massive fiscal stimulus and easing anxiety over COVID-19, with all adult Americans now eligible for vaccination against the virus, have resulted in a faster economic rebound in the United States compared to its global rivals.

The second-fastest gross domestic product growth since the third quarter of 2003, reported by the Commerce Department on Thursday, left output just 0.9% shy of its level at the end of 2019. Economists expect a full recovery from the pandemic recession, which started in February 2020, in late 2023.

The report is a boost for President Joe Biden as he celebrated 100 days in the White House.

“In early 2021, the economy was served a strong cocktail of improving health conditions and rapid vaccinations along with a fizzy dose of fiscal stimulus and a steady flow of monetary policy support,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “Looking ahead, we foresee the economy’s spring bloom turning into a summer boom.”

GDP increased at a 6.4% annualized rate last quarter, the government said in its advance estimate for the first three months of the year. That followed a 4.3% growth rate in the fourth quarter. It was the biggest first-quarter increase in growth since 1984.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP growth would increase at a 6.1% pace in the January-March period.

Income at the disposal of households before accounting for inflation surged by a whopping $2.36 trillion after decreasing $402.1 billion in the fourth quarter. As result, consumer spending jumped at a 10.7% rate, boosted by purchases of motor vehicles, furniture, recreational goods and electronics. Consumers also dined out, stayed at hotels and gambled.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a 2.3% pace in the fourth quarter. Some of the stimulus money was stashed away, with savings ballooning to $4.12 trillion from $2.25 trillion in the fourth quarter. Economists estimate households have accumulated at least $2 trillion in excess savings during the pandemic.

The government has provided nearly $6 trillion in COVID-19 relief over the past year. Robust demand in the first quarter pushed against supply constraints, leading businesses to draw down inventories, limiting the rise in GDP growth.

Excluding inventories, government and trade, the economy grew at a 10.6% rate last quarter.

The rapidly accelerating growth could revive fears about the economy overheating. The Federal Reserve on Wednesday acknowledged the burgeoning domestic activity, but the U.S. central bank gave no sign it was ready to reduce its extraordinary support for the recovery.

The booming economy could also erode support among moderate Democrats for Biden’s ambitious economic agenda. Biden on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping $1.8 trillion package for families and education in his first joint speech to Congress. Republicans oppose more stimulus, now worried about swelling debt. The new package and an earlier infrastructure and jobs plan total around $4 trillion, rivaling the annual federal budget.

“The second quarter will be hotter, people have money to spend as they are able to go shopping and traveling again,” said Sung Won Sohn, a finance and economics professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Production is being ramped up to rebuild inventories. President Biden and (Fed) Chairman (Jerome) Powell, do we need all the stimuli?”

U.S. stocks were mostly higher. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

POWERFUL MOMENTUM

Inflation has accelerated, but many economists, including Fed officials, expect it will be transitory as the labor market remains 8.4 million jobs below its peak in February 2020.

The labor market is gradually recovering. In a separate report on Thursday, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 553,000 during the week ended April 24.

While claims have dropped from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020, they are above the range of 200,000 to 250,000 that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market.

There were 16.6 million people receiving unemployment benefits in the first week of April.

“We’re still probably a couple years away from pre-pandemic employment levels, but based on the powerful economic momentum built up in the first quarter, we should return close to a fully-functioning economy in the second quarter,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.

Economists forecast growth this year could top 7%, which would be the fastest since 1984. The economy contracted 3.5% in 2020, the worst performance in 74 years.

Growth in the first quarter was also driven by business spending on equipment, which posted a third straight quarter of double-digit expansion. But business investment in nonresidential structures fell for a sixth straight quarter as a rebound in mining exploration, shafts and wells was offset by a drop in commercial and healthcare buildings.

Residential investment contributed to GDP growth for a third straight quarter. But trade was a drag for the third consecutive quarter as some of the domestic demand was satiated with imports. Inventories were drawn down at a rate of 85.5 billion.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

Analysis: The housing boom, central banks and the inflation conundrum

By Sujata Rao

LONDON (Reuters) – A multi-year boom in global house prices which even a pandemic has failed to halt is forcing central banks around the world to confront a knotty question – what, if anything, should they be doing about it?

The surge in property values from Australia to Sweden is often viewed benignly by governments as creating wealth. But history also shows the risk of de-stabilizing bubbles and the high social cost as millions find home ownership unaffordable.

The irony is that while the cheap money created by low or negative interest rates has driven the price rises, they barely figure in central banks’ calculations of inflation, one of the key drivers of their monetary policy.

While housing costs, whether rent or home repairs, are assigned varying weights in inflation indices ranging from 40%-plus in the United States to 6.5% in the euro zone, house prices themselves are left out. As they spiral higher and higher, many argue this is no longer tenable.

“The debate of whether we actually are reflecting inflation properly will come up more and more. House prices will start getting a lot of attention,” said Manoj Pradhan, co-author of a book called The Great Demographic Reversal, which predicts a global inflation resurgence in coming years.

Global residential property prices have risen 60% in the past 10 years, according to a Knight Frank index. In 2020, even as COVID-19 choked the world economy, they climbed an average 5.6%, with 20%-30% jumps in some markets.

While low interest rates have long been the main driver of the rally, existing government subsidies for home ownership and more recently pandemic-era support such as suspending property taxes have been factors too.

Many of these one-off support measures will start to be wound down, but governments often fight shy of politically tricky measures to keep a lid more firmly on prices, such as banning multiple property ownership or easing building regulations.

That raises the question of what central banks can do.

FIRST SALVO

New Zealand’s government fired the first salvo in February when it told its central bank to consider the impact of interest rates on house prices, which soared 23% last year.

Others are considering the question too. European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde said last week that measuring housing’s role in the rising cost of living had emerged as a key point in a strategic policy review due to be unveiled this year.

If real inflation is higher than the official consumer price index is measuring, it could imply that central bank or government policies are more expansionary than they should be.

“If housing does not signal inflation via the CPI, then the economy is more likely to run hot, and what you get over time is generalized inflation pressures,” Pradhan said.

At present rental inflation is subdued due to pandemic hardship, or because low interest rates and remote working are encouraging home-buying.

Morgan Stanley’s chief cross-asset strategist Andrew Sheets said this may be giving a misleading signal. “The rental market will be weak and the housing market will be strong and that (rental weakness) could show up as a disinflationary force.”

There are strong arguments for excluding headline shifts in house prices from inflation indexes. Housing is, for most people a lifetime purchase rather than an ongoing expense, which they are designed to gauge.

Including house prices in the inflation measures central banks use to guide policy is also widely seen as impractical, given their extreme volatility.

More central banks may however consider adapting inflation indices to include a measure of the costs associated with living in one’s own home, such as maintenance and home improvements.

At present, inflation measures used by the Fed, the Bank of Japan, New Zealand and Australia include so-called owner-occupier costs. But the gauge employed by the Bank of England does not, and they are also not factored into the main inflation measure used by the ECB.

The ECB has argued for their inclusion, but collecting timely data from 19 countries and differing home ownership levels across the bloc would complicate the task.

Crucially, economists believe including these costs might have lifted euro zone inflation by 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points, taking the ECB nearer its elusive inflation target of close to 2%.

LONG-DORMANT INFLATION

Ultimately, such policymaking shifts may be risky amid uncertainty created by the pandemic.

Adding property prices to CPI indexes just as long-dormant inflation finally awakes could send readings soaring, heaping pressure on central banks to tighten policy even as economies nurse pandemic-time wounds.

Some analysts, such as at ING Bank, predict that with some exceptions housing rallies may anyway start to cool as support measures introduced during the pandemic are unwound.

Voters’ anger may even goad governments into slugging property investors with higher taxes – as New Zealand did at the end of March.

Those who argue against extending central bank remits further into housing say tighter policy could even exacerbate the problem by crimping property supply.

George Washington University professor Danny Leipziger argues housing markets are more effectively cooled by regulation and measures outside central banks’ scope, such as raising capital gains taxes and increasing the supply of housing.

“I have no problem with the ECB adding rental or home-owners’ costs to its basket,” Leipziger said. “But if I am concerned about house prices in Berlin or Madrid, asking the ECB to deal with it is not the right way.”

(Additional reporting by Dhara Ranasinghe and David Milliken; Editing by Mark John and Jan Harvey)

Exclusive: Fed Chair Powell says won’t allow ‘substantial’ overshoot of inflation target – April 8 letter to U.S. senator

By Ann Saphir

(Reuters) – The U.S. economy is going to temporarily see “a little higher” inflation this year as the economy strengthens and supply constraints push up prices in some sectors, but the Federal Reserve is committed to keeping any overshoot within limits, Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in an April 8 letter.

“We do not seek inflation that substantially exceeds 2 percent, nor do we seek inflation above 2 percent for a prolonged period,” Powell told Senator Rick Scott in a five-page letter responding to a March 24 letter from the Florida Republican raising concerns about rising inflation and the Fed’s bond buying program. “I would emphasize, though, that we are fully committed to both legs of our dual mandate – maximum employment and stable prices.”

Scott, while not on the Senate Banking Committee that directly oversees the Fed, nonetheless has been a vocal critic of Powell. He has warned that the Fed’s low interest rates and bond-buying program will force prices higher, hurting families and businesses.

His office provided Powell’s letter to Reuters, and suggested the response did not allay the senator’s concerns.

“The data is clear that inflation is rising, and Chair Powell continues to ignore this growing problem,” Scott’s office told Reuters in the email. “Senator Scott remains concerned about the impact inflation will have on low and fixed-income American families, like his growing up. He is calling on Chair Powell to wake up to this threat, lay out a clear plan to address rising inflation and protect American families.”

Powell in his letter said that low inflation constrains the Fed’s ability to offset economic shocks with easy policy, and that after a decade of too-low inflation, the Fed is now aiming for inflation moderately above 2%.

“We understand well the lessons of the high inflation experience in the 1960s and 1970s, and the burdens that experience created for all Americans,” Powell said in the letter. “We do not anticipate inflation pressures of that type, but we have the tools to address such pressures if they do arise.”

(Reporting by Ann Saphir; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Dan Burns)

U.S. housing starts near 15-year high; consumer sentiment rises moderately

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. homebuilding surged to nearly a 15-year high in March, but soaring lumber prices amid supply constraints could limit builders’ capacity to boost production and ease a shortage of homes that is threatening to slow housing market momentum.

The sharp rebound reported by the Commerce Department on Friday added to robust retail sales in March in suggesting that the economy was roaring after a brief weather-related setback in February. Increasing COVID-19 vaccinations, warmer weather and massive fiscal stimulus are driving the economy, with growth this year expected to be the strongest in nearly four decades.

But caution is starting to creep in among consumers as the course of the pandemic remains uncertain and inflation is showing signs of heating up. Other data on Friday showed consumer sentiment rose moderately in early April.

“We’re in a unique situation with the economy beginning to rebound from the worst of the pandemic,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “Uncertainties remain, with many businesses yet to reopen, unemployment still high, and COVID-19 levels lower but persistent.”

Housing starts surged 19.4% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.739 million units last month, the highest level since June 2006. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast starts would rise to a rate of 1.613 million units in March.

Starts soared 37.0% on a year-on-year basis in March. Homebuilding slumped in February as large parts of the country reeled from unseasonably cold weather, including winter storms in Texas and other parts of the densely-populated South region.

Groundbreaking activity increased in the Northeast, Midwest and South, but fell in the West. Permits for future home building rose 2.7% to a rate of 1.766 million units last month, recouping only a fraction of February’s 8.8% plunge. They jumped 30.2% compared to March 2020.

“While housing demand is expected to remain strong, we expect it to diminish somewhat as the year progresses,” said Doug Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae in Washington. “Homebuilders continue to face supply constraints, including increasing prices of lumber and other materials.”

Stocks on Wall Street were mostly higher, with the S&P 500 index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average hitting fresh record highs. The dollar slipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

RECORD LUMBER PRICES

The housing market is being fueled by demand for bigger and more expensive accommodations, with millions of Americans continuing to work from home and remote schooling remaining in place as the pandemic enters its second year. Housing supply has been insufficient, with the inventory of previously-owned homes at record lows. This is underpinning homebuilding.

A survey from the National Association of Home Builders on Thursday showed confidence among single-family homebuilders increased in April amid strong buyer traffic. Builders appealed for solutions “to increase the supply of building materials as the economy runs hot in 2021.”

Inflation concerns were on consumers’ minds early this month. A separate report from the University of Michigan on Friday showed its preliminary consumer sentiment index rose to 86.5 from a final reading of 84.9 in March.

Economists had forecast the index would rise to 89.6.

The survey’s one-year inflation expectation jumped to 3.7%, the highest level in nearly a decade, from 3.1% in March. Its five-year inflation outlook was unchanged at 2.7%.

Reports this month showed big increases in both consumer and producer prices in March as strong domestic demand pushed against supply constraints. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many economists view higher inflation as transitory, with supply chains expected to adapt and become more efficient.

Supply disruptions because of coronavirus-related restrictions are driving up commodity prices. Softwood lumber, which is used for frames and trusses of houses, surged by a record 83.4% on a year-on-year basis in March, according to the latest producer price data published last week. Prices of other building materials such as plywood have also risen sharply.

Port congestion on the West Coast as well as winter weather in Canada that has shut mills and restricted truck shipping were also contributing to the shortages that were driving prices of building materials higher, according to an Institute for Supply Management survey published early this month.

Single-family homebuilding, the largest share of the housing market, surged 15.3% to a rate of 1.238 million units in March. Still, starts remained below last December’s peak, likely constrained by the more expensive building materials.

Single-family building permits rose 4.6% to a rate of 1.199 million units.

“The failure of single-family starts to fully recover to last winter’s peak level despite tight inventories in most metropolitan areas supports the idea builders are holding back,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York.

Starts for the volatile multi-family segment soared 30.8% to a pace of 501,000 units. Building permits for multi-family housing projects fell 1.2% to a pace of 567,000 units.

Housing completions accelerated 16.6% to a rate of 1.580 million units last month, the highest since March 2007. Single-family home completions shot up 5.3% to a rate of 1.099 million, the highest since November 2007.

Realtors estimate that single-family housing starts and completion rates need to be in a range of 1.5 million to 1.6 million units per month to close the inventory gap.

The stock of housing under construction rose 0.8% to a rate of 1.306 million units, the highest since September 2006.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. private payrolls miss expectations; cost pressures rising for businesses

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. private payrolls increased less than expected in February amid job losses in manufacturing and construction, suggesting the labor market was struggling to regain speed despite the nation’s improving public health picture.

Part of the labor market’s problems appear to be rooted in a shortage of workers. Other data on Wednesday showed job growth in the services industry retreated last month, with businesses reporting they were “unable to fill vacant positions with qualified applicants” and “need more resources to meet demand.”

The year-long COVID-19 pandemic is keeping some workers at home, fearful of accepting or returning to jobs that could expose them to the coronavirus. The data was published ahead of the government’s closely watched employment report on Friday, and could temper expectations for an acceleration in job growth in February. The ADP’s private payrolls report, however, has a poor track record predicting the private payrolls count in the government’s more comprehensive employment report.

“This is a disappointment given that the drop-off in coronavirus case numbers and the resulting lifting of containment measures should be giving the economy a bigger shot in the arm,” said Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.

Private payrolls rose by 117,000 jobs last month after increasing 195,000 in January, the ADP National Employment Report showed. The report is jointly developed with Moody’s Analytics. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast private payrolls would increase by 177,000 jobs in February.

Construction employment fell by 3,000 jobs and manufacturing payrolls decreased 14,000. Hiring in the services sector increased by 131,000 jobs, with the leisure and hospitality industry adding 26,000 positions. Harsh weather in some parts of the country was also likely a factor holding back gains.

Still, the labor market has been slow to regain traction even as some restrictions on services businesses have been rolled back amid a drop in new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. Though the rate of decline in coronavirus cases has stalled, economists still believe the labor market will regain momentum in the spring and through summer.

In a separate report on Wednesday, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its measure of services sector employment fell to a reading of 52.7 in February from 55.2 in January.

The lack of significant improvement in the labor market is also despite nearly $900 billion in additional pandemic relief provided by the government in late December, which boosted consumer spending and positioned the economy for faster growth in the first quarter.

Gross domestic product growth estimates for the first quarter have been raised to as high as a 10% annualized rate from as low as a 2.3% pace. The upgrades also reflect President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion recovery plan, under consideration by Congress. The economy grew at a 4.1% rate in the fourth quarter.

“Historically, employment lags GDP by a quarter or so,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Everything from that (GDP) front looks good, we are expecting substantial job growth in the not-too-distant future.”

Stocks on Wall Street were mostly lower. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

RISING COSTS

According to a Reuters poll of economists, the government will likely report on Friday that nonfarm payrolls increased by 180,000 jobs in February after rising only 49,000 in January.

Hopes for a pick-up in hiring last month were supported by a survey last week showing consumers’ perceptions of the labor market improved in February after deteriorating in January and December. In addition, a measure of manufacturing employment increased to a two-year high in February.

The retrenchment in services employment last month contributed to the ISM’s broader non-manufacturing activity index declining to a nine-month low of 55.3 in February from a reading of 58.7 in January. A reading above 50 indicates growth in the services sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Economists had forecast the index unchanged at 58.7. The decline likely reflected brutal winter storms, which lashed Texas and parts of the populous South region in mid-February.

The lack of qualified workers at suppliers and manufacturers is creating bottlenecks in the supply chain, leaving businesses with high production costs. The survey’s measure of prices paid by services industries jumped to 71.8 last month, the highest reading since September 2008, from 64.2 in January.

It mirrored findings of the ISM’s manufacturing survey published on Monday and a surge in consumers’ near-term inflation expectations.

Inflation is expected to accelerate in the coming months in part as last year’s pandemic-driven weak readings drop out of the calculation. Economists are divided on whether the jump in price pressures will stick beyond the so-called base effects.

U.S. Treasury yields have risen, with investors betting that the Federal Reserve’s ultra-easy monetary policy stance and White House’s proposed massive stimulus will ignite inflation.

Many services businesses complained about supply delays and labor shortages. Wholesalers reported an “ongoing influx of price increases due to raw-material shortages.” Retailers said “price increases are occurring with more frequency,” while accommodation and food services noted suppliers were proposing “price increases that are above and beyond normal expectations.”

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. factory activity cools; cost pressures mounting

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. factory activity slowed in early February likely as a global semiconductor chip shortage hurt production at automobile plants, while prices of inputs and manufactured goods soared, which could heighten fears of strong inflation growth this year.

The report from data firm IHS Markit on Friday also showed businesses in the services industry were experiencing higher costs related to the procurement of personal protective equipment, a greater proportion of which they were passing on to clients “through a marked rise in selling prices.”

Inflation is being closely watched amid concerns from some quarters that President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package could cause the economy to overheat. The package would be on top of nearly $900 billion in additional fiscal stimulus provided at the end of December.

“A concern is that firms’ costs have surged higher, driving selling prices for goods and services up at a survey record pace and hinting at a further increase in inflation,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit.

IHS Markit’s flash U.S. manufacturing PMI dropped to 58.5 in the first half of this month from a final reading of 59.2 in January. Extreme weather in large parts of the United States was also blamed. The data was in line with economists’ forecasts.

A reading above 50 indicates growth in manufacturing, which accounts for 11.9% of the U.S. economy. Manufacturing has powered ahead as the pandemic left Americans grounded at home, shifting demand to household goods from services like airline travel and hotel accommodation.

But the coronavirus has disrupted labor at both suppliers and manufacturers, leading to shortages of goods critical to the production processes. Motor vehicle manufacturers have been hit by a semiconductor chip shortage, leading some to temporarily close assembly plants this month.

General Motors announced it would take down production entirely at its Fairfax plant in Kansas City during the week of Feb. 8. Ford Motor has reduced shifts at its Dearborn truck plant and Kansas City assembly plant.

The supply chain bottlenecks, which are widespread across the manufacturing sector as well as the services industry, have led to higher prices for inputs, including raw materials. The survey’s measure of prices paid by manufacturers shot up to its highest level since April 2011. A gauge of prices received by factories surged to its highest level since July 2008.

Though price pressures are expected to rise as last year’s low readings drop out of the calculation, there is no consensus among economists whether higher inflation would stick beyond the so-called base effects.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said last week while he expected inflation to be boosted by base effects and pent-up demand when the economy fully reopens, that would be transitory, citing three decades of lower and stable prices.

The inflation outlook will likely hinge on the labor market, which is currently experiencing considerable slack, with at least 18.3 million Americans on unemployment benefits.

While the manufacturing expansion cooled, activity in the services industry gained traction this month.

The IHS Markit’s flash services sector PMI edged up to 58.9 from a final reading of 58.3 in January. The highest reading since March 2015 came as new COVID-19 infections and hospitalization rates dropped, allowing authorities to roll back some restrictions on consumer-facing businesses.

The services sector, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, has borne the brunt of the pandemic.

Cost burdens for services businesses increased at their steepest pace since October 2009, leading to firms boosting their selling prices at the sharpest rate on record.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were lower.

STRONG HOUSING MARKET

Manufacturing and housing are leading the economy’s recovery from the pandemic recession. In a separate report on Friday, the National Association of Realtors said existing home sales rose 0.6% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.69 million units in January.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast sales would fall 1.5% to a rate of 6.61 million units in January. The second straight monthly increase in sales was despite contracts to buy a home declining for four consecutive months. The NAR attributed the misalignment to different sample sizes.

Home resales, which account for the bulk of U.S. home sales, surged 23.7% on a year-on-year basis. The gains have defied tight supply, which has led to a surge in house price inflation. Sales last month were concentrated in the mid-to-upper price range of the market. Sales fell in the Northeast and West. They, however, rose in the South and the Midwest.

“Existing home sales will remain strong but will be unable to move significantly higher until more supply appears,” said David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide in Columbus, Ohio.

The housing market is being driven by still historically low mortgage rates, and demand for spacious accommodations for home offices and schooling.

There were a record-low 1.04 million previously owned homes on the market in January, down 25.7% from one year ago. The median existing house price shot up 14.1% from a year ago to $303,900 in January.

At January’s sales pace, it would take 1.9 months to exhaust the current inventory, down from 3.1 months a year ago. A six-to-seven-month supply is viewed as a healthy balance between supply and demand.