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Construction Spending falls in March

Construction SpendingEnlarge GraphConstruction Spending is a major driver of job growth in the US economy

The Construction Put in Place Survey is released monthly by the Census Bureau and measures the total dollar value of construction work done in the US. It covers both the public and private sector and includes new structures as well as improvements to existing structures. The data includes the cost of labor, materials, architectural work, engineering work, overhead, interest, taxes and contractor profits.

Construction activity has a large multiplier effect – in other words, a new construction job spawns additional job growth. The multiplier effect for construction jobs has been estimated to be around 2.  Construction has the benefit of employing a lot of people, and part of the reason why the recovery from the Great Recession has been so tepid has been the lack of construction spending.

Construction Spending falls 1.7%month-over-month in March

Construction spending fell to $856.7 billion in March from $871.3 billion in February. Spending is up 4.8% year-over-year. Private construction fell .6% month-over month, while public construction spending fell 4.1%. Public construction has been falling over the past year and is down 5.4%. Year-over-year, private construction is up 9.8%. Residential construction is up.4% month-over-month and 18.2% year-over-year. Nonresidential construction is up 2.8% year-over-year.

Construction spending made a post-recession peak of $892 billion in December last year. That level equates to mid 2003 spending levels. Construction spending peaked at $1.2 trillion in March of 2006. It bottomed in Feb 2011 at $746 billion.

Today’s report had a negligible impact on the performance of the Homebuilder ETF (XHB) which was down modestly with the market. The report does not break out single-family construction versus multi-family construction, so it is hard to tell how this plays out for the homebuilders. The housing starts release earlier this month showed a focus on multi-family, while the building permits report showed an emphasis on single family.  Homebuilders compete with rentals for new household formation, and as the supply of rental properties increases, rents should fall relative to house prices. This will negatively affect new home pricing at the margin. Homebuilders like Lennar (LEN), KB Homes (KBH), Toll Brothers (TOL), and NVR will feel the impact of an increasing supply of rental properties. Offsetting this effect will be the current low inventory level.

Right now, the difference between renting and buying is about the widest it has ever been. When one considers the difference between median house prices and median rents, purchasing is cheaper. Rock-bottom interest rates and low prices for starter homes are making homeownership very affordable. As the job market improves for younger adults, those that are currently renting will contemplate homeownership. The Obama Administration has been pushing banks to lend more and to use FHA loans for first-time home buyers. FHA loans require only 3.5% down, so they are perfect for the first time homebuyer. This move from renting to purchasing will help homebuilders longer-term.