So the latest housing number is kind of bad: 654,000 new units were started in March, 5.8 percent below the revised February numbers. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg were expecting something considerably higher. The median estimate of the 82 who ventured a guess was 705,000. Even the lowball forecast, 670,000, was too high. It’s the rare economic survey where the biggest bear isn’t bearish enough. Clearly we’ve been fooled by housing again: Just when it looked like he was getting out of bed, the perpetual sick man of the recovery rolls over with some phlegmy numbers.
But how disappointed should we be? Housing starts last month were still 10 percent higher than a year earlier. And building permits were strong, up 4.5 percent from February and 30 percent higher than they were a year earlier. Permits data tend to be the more dependable number anyway, compared with the choppy starts number that tends to get significantly revised. Of course, it’s a lot easier to file a building permit than to start building the thing.