Oct. 18 (Bloomberg) -- The index of U.S. leading economic indicators rose in September by the most in seven months, boosted in part by a jump in permits for home construction that’s helping underpin the expansion.
The Conference Board’s gauge of the outlook for the next three to six months increased 0.6 percent after a revised 0.4 percent drop in August that was bigger than initially reported, the New York-based group said today. Economists projected the gauge would climb 0.2 percent, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey.
A recovery in the housing market and a surge in stock prices may also be fueling optimism among consumers, whose spending accounts for about 70 percent of the economy. At the same time, the so-called fiscal cliff -- $607 billion in federal spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to take effect in January unless Congress acts -- is a hurdle for business investment and hiring.
“The residential housing market is in the very early stages of a durable recovery,” Joe Lavorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York, said in a research note before today’s report. “Housing is a leading indicator of underlying domestic demand; thus, continued improvement in the former bodes well for some acceleration over time in the latter.”
Estimates from 52 economists in the Bloomberg survey ranged from a decrease of 0.1 percent to an increase of 0.6 percent in the Conference Board’s leading index. The August figure was revised from a previously reported 0.1 percent drop, reflecting weaker orders from consumer goods and capital equipment during the month.
Stocks pared losses after the report and another showing Philadelphia-area manufacturing expanded this month for the first time since April. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 0.1 percent to 1,458.84 at 10:12 a.m. in New York.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s general economic index rose to 5.7 in October from minus 1.9 a month earlier. A reading of zero is the dividing line between expansion and contraction in the area covering eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware.
Consumer confidence reached a six-month high last week as more Americans said it was a good time to shop, another report today showed. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to minus 34.8 in the week ended Oct. 14, the highest level since April, from minus 38.5 the previous week. The monthly expectations gauge improved to minus 7 in October, the best reading since May.
More Americans than forecast filed applications for unemployment benefits last week, reflecting an unwinding of adjustments for seasonal swings at the start of a quarter, Labor Department figures showed today. Jobless claims increased by 46,000 to 388,000 in the week ended Oct. 13 from a revised 342,000 the prior period that was the lowest since February 2008.
Six of the 10 indicators in the leading index contributed to the increase, while three declined. The interest-rate spread between the federal funds rate and 10-year Treasury notes, a gauge of credit and pickups in orders for consumer and capital goods were among other indicators adding to the September LEI gain.
“The LEI has been signaling an economy that is fluctuating around a slow growth trend,” Ataman Ozyildirim, an economist at the Conference Board, said in a statement. “The six-month growth rate has slowed substantially, but still remains in growth territory due to positive contributions from housing and financial components.”
The Conference Board’s index of coincident indicators, a gauge of current economic activity, increased 0.2 percent.
The coincident index tracks payrolls, incomes, sales and production -- measures used by the National Bureau of Economic Research to determine the beginning and end of U.S. recessions.
The gauge of lagging indicators rose 0.1 percent in September after increasing 0.3 percent the previous month.
Building permits, a proxy for future construction, jumped to an 894,000 annual rate, also exceeding the median forecast and the most since July 2008, Commerce Department figures showed yesterday in Washington.
Housing starts in the U.S. surged 15 percent in September to the highest level in four years, the agency also said. Starts jumped to an 872,000 annual rate last month, the most since July 2008 and exceeding all forecasts in a Bloomberg survey of economists.
Borrowing costs at record lows and a limited supply of new homes are spurring an increase in orders for homebuilders.
Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., based in Red Bank, New Jersey, is among homebuilders seeing gains in sales this year as buyers return to the market.
“We certainly believe the housing market’s recent overall strength and our significant improved sales pace this year indicates that the market for new homes has truly bounced off the bottom,” Larry Sorsby, the company’s chief financial officer, said at an Oct. 4 conference. The market “is already in a period of gradual recovery,” he said.
A rally in stock prices is also making Americans feel wealthier. The S&P 500 climbed 2.4 percent in September, the biggest monthly gain since June.
Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke renewed a pledge Oct. 1 to sustain record stimulus even after the U.S. expansion gains strength, while saying policy makers don’t expect the economy to remain weak through 2015.
“We expect that a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy will remain appropriate for a considerable time after the economy strengthens,” Bernanke said in a speech in Indianapolis that day. Policy makers’ forecast to hold the main interest rate near zero until at least mid-2015 “doesn’t mean that we expect the economy to be weak through” that year, he said.
The Federal Open Market Committee said last month it will buy $40 billion of mortgage debt a month in a third round of quantitative easing until the labor market shows “sustained improvement,” with Bernanke calling housing “one of the missing pistons in the engine.”
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