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April 21: March Housing Starts Leap; Building Permits Fall

April 23, 2003
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Housing starts jumped 8% in March, seasonally adjusted, after February's revised 10% drop, the government reported. Building permits slumped 7% in March to a seven-month low at a seasonally adjusted annual rate. Both figures were affected by big swings in the weather. Permits for the first three months of 2003 are up 3% from the first quarter of 2002, with similar rises in permits for single-family and multi-unit structures.

Year-to-date housing starts are up by 2%. Builders remain optimistic, according to the latest monthly survey from the National Assn. of Home Builders. This week's average 30-year fixed mortgage rate is 5.82%, close to the 40-year low set last month and more than a point below year-ago levels. These signs point to continued strong housing starts and sales.

The consumer price index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) rose a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

BLS commented, "Energy costs again rose sharply -- up 4.6% in March -- and accounted for over 90% of the advance in the overall CPI-U... The index for all items less food and energy was unchanged in March after increasing 0.1% in January and February."

Over the past 12 months this "core" CPI-U is up only 1.7%. Thus, there is still no sign that businesses are able to pass most cost increases along to consumers, even though the producer rose 1% or more in each of the past three months.

The overall CPI is likely to drop next month, because fuel prices have been falling as fast or faster than they rose, contrary to conventional wisdom.

After setting a record of $1.77 on March 17, the average retail gasoline price tumbled 13 cents over the past four weeks to $1.64 on April 14, the Energy Information Administration reported Monday. In the previous four weeks the price had risen 6.7 cents. The average on-highway diesel price peaked a week earlier, on March 10, also at $1.77. Since then it has fallen 23 cents in five weeks to $1.54 on Monday. Five weeks before the peak, the price was also $1.54.

The Census Bureau released estimates of population by county as of July 1, 2002, and change in the previous 12 months The data are useful for indicating where demand for housing and various types of nonresidential structures (e.g., schools, stores, etc.) may be strongest.

Rockwall County, near Dallas, recorded the fastest growth (7.9%), seven times as fast as the national average (1.1%). Los Angeles County, the nation's largest (9.8 million as of July 2002), also added the most people over the year (129,000). But nearly 40% of the country's 3141 counties had no growth.

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