Once again, last week’s economic news was disappointing overall, with a few bright spots. In brief:

  • The housing reports were mixed, with new home sales declining but pending home sales increasing.
  • Business orders were simply bad, even with an increase in defense orders of aircraft that inflated the headline number.
  • Despite consumers’ growing incomes, they continue to worry and not spend.

This weak performance was ratified by the GDP report, which showed growth down considerably in the first quarter from the prior one, and by the Federal Reserve, which hinted that it was more concerned about the U.S. economy.

Housing may be looking up
On the heels of recent weak housing results, last week’s new home sales figure followed suit, down 1.5 percent, to 511,000, from the prior month’s increase of 2 percent. In context, this was a relatively small miss (9,000 out of 520,000), and absolute sales levels remain healthy, but the lack of improvement validates the weakness of the starts and permits data from the prior week. On the positive side, the pending home sales report posted an increase of 1.4 percent, better than the expected uptick of 0.5 percent, suggesting the market may be turning.

Manufacturing . . . not so much
Durable goods orders data was disappointing. The volatile headline figure, which includes aircraft, rebounded from a loss of 3 percent to a gain of 0.8 percent—much less than the expected gain of 1.9 percent—despite a substantial increase in defense aircraft orders for Boeing. The more representative core durable goods orders, which exclude transportation, also rebounded, moving from a loss of 1.3 percent to a loss of 0.2 percent, but still fell far short of the expected gain of 0.5 percent. Clearly, the manufacturing and industrial sector has not yet stabilized, despite encouraging survey results.

Consumers doing well but still not confident
In line with the generally weak results, the Conference Board’s survey of consumer confidence dropped from 96.2 to 94.2, against expectations for a decline to 95.8. The weaker-than-expected results aren’t a total surprise, as gasoline prices have risen by more than 6 percent over the past months, and the Michigan confidence survey dropped by more. Notably, however, the decline was in expectations; current confidence actually rose, suggesting that consumer conditions remain positive. It’s also worth noting that, despite the decline, this indicator remains at a healthy level, signaling continued growth.

The discrepancy between better current conditions and weaker confidence also showed up in the personal income and spending report. Income growth increased from 0.2 percent to 0.4 percent on a monthly basis, indicating continuing strength in the labor market, a very positive result. On the other hand, spending growth stayed constant at 0.1 percent, driven largely by a decline in motor vehicle sales and in utility spending. The trend of income rising faster than spending continues to slow current growth, but it also makes the growth we do get more secure. For the moment, though, the latest results point to more of the same, with consumers saving more than they are spending.

GDP growth slows
The economic slowdown we've seen this year was confirmed by the GDP growth rate, which sank to 0.5 percent from 1.4 percent on an annualized quarterly basis, below expectations of 0.7 percent. GDP was dragged down by slower consumption growth and weak trade performance, as well as by continued weak business investment. While disappointing, this report includes facts already known and is a backward-looking indicator; growth is expected to accelerate in the remainder of the year.

Fed seems a little more concerned
Last week also saw the April meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, and as expected, interest rates remained unchanged. The meeting minutes, which are closely scrutinized for hints about the Fed’s mind-set, seemed to suggest that its worries about the rest of the world had moderated but that concern about the U.S. economy may have grown. Overall, the minutes indicated that, while there is a possibility of an interest rate increase, it is by no means certain or even likely.

Lots of data this week
In a busy week for economic data, the major business surveys from the Institutes of Supply Management will be released, as will the international trade balance report and the employment report.

The ISM Manufacturing report, which moved from negative (under 50) back to positive (over 50) last month, is expected to show a small pullback, from 51.8 to 51.5, but to remain positive, suggesting that the manufacturing sector continues to stabilize. With the weakening of the dollar and continued adjustment by industry, this would be reasonable—and good news.