Over the next three months, the U.S. Census Bureau is going to hire about 1.2 million temporary workers. The seasonally adjusted impact of these numbers will be massive, so don’t overreact positively when the news makes headlines a few months from now.

Nonetheless, we believe that positive job creation is getting ready to occur as most of the leading indicators point to solid growth ahead, and recent job loss figures have been only slightly negative. Job creation is going to be driven by big companies who have downsized significantly, as well as small businesses who will slowly return to growth mode.

Over the next three months, the U.S. Census Bureau is going to hire about 1.2 million temporary workers. The seasonally adjusted impact of these numbers will be massive, so don’t overreact positively when the news makes headlines a few months from now.

Nonetheless, we believe that positive job creation is getting ready to occur as most of the leading indicators point to solid growth ahead, and recent job loss figures have been only slightly negative. Job creation is going to be driven by big companies who have downsized significantly, as well as small businesses who will slowly return to growth mode.

Since the length of unemployment in the labor force is still hovering near 30 weeks, (the record high since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948), we also believe that job-growth-focused government stimulus will continue.

Methodology

1. We collect a complete history on 70-plus variables and forecast the important ones by forecasting each metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and rolling it up.

2. In this monthly e-mail, we publish the current stats along with the historical minimums, maximums and averages as a service to the industry.

3. Each indicator is graded based on a bell curve where an "A" is its historical best, a "C" is its historical average, and an "F" is its historical worst. The grades are designed to provide a simple tool for decision-makers to scan the data.

4. Each of the eight categories has a grade that is nothing more than the average of the grades under it.

Economic Growth: D+

Overall economic growth was about the same this month compared to last, and the results for our economic growth metrics were mixed. The revised fourth-quarter gross domestic product growth rate increased to 5.9 percent from the preliminary estimate of 5.7 percent. Much of the growth was still the result of recent government stimulus and an increase in inventories.

The pace of job losses also eased this month, although in the last 12 months the United States has lost 3.24 million jobs, which is equal to a decline of 2.5 percent of the total payroll workforce.

The unemployment rate remained flat this month at 9.7 percent, while the broader measure of unemployment, the U-6, increased to 16.8 percent. (According to the bureau, the U-6 includes two groups that the U-3, which is the typical unemployment rate, does not: "marginally attached" — i.e., discouraged — workers and those employed part time for economic reasons.)

The length of unemployment in the labor force declined slightly to just under 30 weeks this month, yet remains the second-highest month on record since the BLS began tracking the statistic in 1948. Personal income improved in January and has returned to positive year-over-year growth for the first time since December 2008, increasing by 1.1 percent.

The Consumer Price Index (all items) decreased to 2.6 percent from one year ago, while the Core CPI (minus food and energy) also dropped to 1.6 percent.

Leading Indicators: C

Overall leading indicators held relatively steady this month, but several individual metrics actually improved. The Leading Economic Index six-month growth rate declined in January to 9.8 percent from 12.2 percent last month, and remains very high compared to history. …CONTINUED

The ECRI (Economic Cycle Research Institute) Leading Index — an indicator of future U.S. growth — increased in January to its highest level since May 2008. The index increased 21.5 percent year-over-year, and has experienced positive year-over-year growth for the past eight months.

Stocks improved in February after declining in January, and all four major indices have now experienced large positive year-over-year growth, ranging from 46 percent to 62 percent. The Standard and Poor’s Homebuilding Index also improved this month. The spread between corporate bonds and the 10-year treasury fell in January, declining to 160 basis points (a basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point) after peaking at nearly 270 basis points in March.

Since the 10-year treasury is seen as a risk-free investment, the spread between corporate bonds and 10-year Treasurys displays the perceived risk of investing in corporate bonds, which has declined recently as Wall Street has become less worried about businesses failing

According to the fourt-quarter 2009 CEO Confidence Index, CEOs are now much more confident about the economy. Despite the increase, the outlook index remains lower than earlier this decade. Business credit availability remains very poor, but deteriorated at a slower rate in the first quarter of 2010.

Affordability: C-

This month, affordability improved due to generally declining median home sales prices throughout the country. In addition, our housing-cost-to-income ratio dropped to 25 percent, and housing affordability remains excellent compared to history. Affordability is so good that owning the median-price home is now less expensive than renting the average apartment.

Household income has fallen 4.1 percent year-over-year, to $52,389, as a result of large job losses and government furloughs. The median-home-price-to-income ratio dropped just slightly below the historical average of 3.3 this month to 3.1.

The 30-year fixed mortgage rate increased slightly to 4.98 percent by the end of January, while adjustable mortgage rates fell to 4.29 percent. The Fed’s overnight lending target rate remained at a range of zero to 0.25 percent, which is the lowest level on record. The share of adjustable-rate mortgage applications increased to 4.5 percent by the end of January, but is still significantly less than the peak level of 35 percent of total applications in early 2005.

Consumer Behavior: D

Consumer behavior worsened this month as consumer confidence dropped sharply to 46, which was well below most economists’ expectations. Consumer sentiment also dropped this month, falling to 73.6, which is well below the historical average.

The credit outstanding per household has fallen 10.4 percent over the last year to $7,752 per household. The personal savings rate ticked up to 4.8 percent, but is down from the recent peak of 6.9 percent in May 2009.

The Misery Index dropped for the first time in several months in January, falling to 12.3 from 12.7 the previous month. This was the result of a slight drop in the unemployment rate.

Existing-Home Market: D+

The existing-home market worsened this month as the median price and sales volume fell, and the months of supply increased. The seasonally adjusted annual resale activity declined to 5.05 million homes in January, according to the National Association of Realtors, but has increased 12 percent year-over-year, albeit from historically low levels.

Despite the seasonally adjusted decline, on a rolling 12-month basis sales have improved for eight consecutive months, increasing 0.3 percent this month and 5.8 percent year-over-year.

The federal tax credit was set to expire on Nov. 30 until it was ultimately extended to spring 2010. This led to a surge of closings in November, but sales have dropped over the past two months. …CONTINUED

The national median price of an existing single-family home dropped to $163,600 in January from $169,600 the previous month. The recent increase led to a 1.4 percent year-over-year gain, and marks the first positive growth rate since July 2006.

The Case-Shiller national index, which tracks paired sales (price change of repeat sales for the same home), declined in the fourth quarter, but year-over-year losses for the index eased once again.

The number of unsold homes increased to 7.8 months of supply, which is above the historical average. Pending home sales experienced a slight increase this month after dropping sharply the previous month. As of the fourth quarter, 24 percent of all homes with a mortgage throughout the U.S. were worth less than the balance of the mortgage.

New Home Market: C-

Overall, the new-home market improved this month despite the reported decrease in new-home sales, which we believe to be inaccurate. Builder confidence improved in January to 17 from 15 last month.

The seasonally adjusted new-home sales volume fell to 309,000 transactions, declining 6 percent year-over-year, but the sample size used by the Census Bureau to calculate this metric is extremely small and the confidence interval is quite large.

The rolling 12-month total also fell this month to 371,000 transactions, which is also the lowest level since at least 1963. The median single-family new-home price dropped to $203,500, and has fallen 2.4 percent year-over-year.

The inventory of unsold homes increased again this month to 9.1 months of supply, and the volume of new homes for sale remains essentially flat at 234,000 homes, which is near the lowest volume since April 1971.

Repairs and Remodeling: D-

Conditions for residential repairs and remodeling were mixed this month, with some metrics increasing and others decreasing. Home improvement activity declined 5.4 percent year-over-year, but was slightly better than last quarter’s rate. The Remodeling Market Index decreased in the fourth quarter to 36.4 after increasing for the previous few quarters.

In addition, the index remains well below the historical average of 50. Residential construction has fallen 11 percent year-over-year as of December, but the pace of decline has eased.

Housing Supply: F

In general, the housing supply held relatively steady this month, albeit at very low levels. Total completions fell to 659,000 units this month, which is a 15 percent year-over-year decline. However, seasonally adjusted new-home starts increased in January, due to increases in both single-family and multifamily starts.

Seasonally adjusted total permits decreased to 621,000 this month, which is a 5 percent month-over-month decline, but permits have increased 17 percent year-over-year.

Although vacancy rates in the U.S. have improved in recent quarters, the majority of the U.S. remains oversupplied compared to (historical figures).

Just six states in the U.S. are currently undersupplied: Oklahoma, Wyoming, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska. The homeowner vacancy rate increased again in the fourth quarter of 2009 to 2.7 percent, which is up from 2.6 percent in the third quarter.

John Burns is the founder of Real Estate Consulting in Irvine, Calif., which monitors changes in real estate market conditions and provides consulting services, including strategic planning, market research and financial analysis. He can be reached at jbrec@realestateconsulting.com.

Copyright 2010 John Burns

***

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