Durable Goods Orders, Consumer Spending Both Bright Areas Among Mixed Signals

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Data on durable goods orders for January indicated that business spending last month was strong—a good sign for the manufacturing industry, which is still struggling to recover after a difficult 2015. The data comes on the heels of solid consumer spending data released earlier this week, making a pair of good indicators for the U.S. economy.

However, the economy clearly remains fragile as we’re getting mixed signs of recovery, and the debate continues about when the Fed will raise rates the next time.

Strength in durable goods orders

Durable goods orders climbed by the highest rate in nearly year on the back of demand across multiple categories, climbing 4.9% month over month in January to more than erase the 4.6% decline recorded in December. It was also much better than economists had been expecting, as the consensus among those Reuters polled was a 2.5% increase in January. January’s increase is also an increase of 0.6% from January 2015.

The Wall Street Journal notes that statistics on durable goods orders tend to see big revisions, but January’s strong increase is an important note in the manufacturing sector’s quest for recovery. The newspaper’s website adds that the sector is witnessing mixed signals about what’s on tap for the rest of this year. For ex Institute for Supply Management said its activity gauge indicated that the sector actually shrank last month, marking the fourth consecutive month in which the gauge contradicted other data.

Consumer spending going well too

Goldman Sachs economist Francesco Garzarelli highlighted several other positive indicators for the U.S. economy on Tuesday in a report titled “Global Markets Daily: The Glass Half Full.” At that time, data on durable goods orders wasn’t in yet, but it provides further support for his emphasis on how the indicators are mixed and that there are plenty of bright spots in the economy right now. On Friday we’ll be looking for data on U.S. personal income and spending and the PCE deflator for January.

Garzarelli notes that both U.S. and European consumers are doing well, according to consumer spending data in both regions. Services in particular showed signs of strength last month, and he said this particular metric “is a cornerstone” of his belief that there’s more room for the economic expansion to run right now. He notes that improvements in consumer spending should build inflationary pressures—something that’s especially needed right now as the markets worry about deflationary pressures.

Consumer spending up, but confidence down

He noted also that January’s Consumer Price Index data confirmed that inflation is beginning as services prices moved higher. However, he said energy’s drag is masking this.

Gluskin Sheff economist Dave Rosenberg highlighted the mixed nature of all the data we’re seeing in one of his notes this week. While consumer spending data is strong, the consumer mindset just isn’t one of confidence as the U.S. Consumer Confidence Index slipped to 92.2 this month (Europe is also down), marking the lowest level in seven months. It’s also a significant decline from January’s 97.8 reading, and he notes that this result was much softer than consensus at 97.2.

Rosenberg said sentiment declined this month as a result of “broad-based downgrades across components.” Consumers became less confident in business and especially the labor market as the metric of “plentiful” versus “hard to get” jobs fell to -2.1, marking a three-month low, from January’s -0.6 reading. Additionally, expectations for the next six months tumbled to 78.9, which is the lowest reading in a year and a significant decline from the 85.3 reading measured at the beginning of the year.

What’s worrying consumers?

The financial markets have been roiled since the beginning of the year, and Rosenberg says this is one of the biggest factors impacting consumer confidence. He said that they’ve become the most bearish on the stock market they have been since the peak of the European debt crisis in 2012.”

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Consumers who expect stock prices to rise fell to its lowest level since August 2012 at -11.5, while only 26.5% described themselves as being bullish on equities, which was also the lowest level since the same month. Meanwhile the bear camp reached 38%, the highest level in five months.

Housing price data rises

On the positive side though, we have housing prices as the S&P/ Case-Shiller Housing Price Index climbed a seasonally adjusted 0.8% from November to December, marking the fourth consecutive month in which the gain was 0.7% or more. Rosenberg notes how ironic this reading is because most households’ biggest asset is their home, and housing prices are doing well.

In fact, he adds that over the four months ending in December, the S&P/ Case-Shiller index climbed 10.1%, marking the best increase since the four months ending in October 2013. The index is now at the highest level it has reached since August 2008.

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