Business inventories rise: Does cold weather take the blame again?



Business inventories and sales data help predict economic activity

Business inventories are important drivers of the economy, especially when they build. Historically, recessions start with a buildup of inventory, which causes businesses to slow production and lay off workers. In fact, most recessions up until the Great Recession followed the same pattern. Economic activity increases, which causes inflation. The Fed raises interest rates in response to increased inflation, business activity slows, the inventory builds up, and workers get laid off. Once the inventory is worked down, the workers are rehired and another expansion begins.

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While the Great Recession was caused by an excess of debt, business inventories are still important to watch. It’s essential to focus on the inventory-to-sales ratio, as spikes in this ratio portend slow-downs. “Normalcy” is defined as a ratio of around 1.25 to 1.35x. In early 2009, the ratio spiked to 1.48. Inventory buildups can cause temporary slow-downs in the context of an expanding economy, so it pays to watch them.

Inventories rise and sales fall in January

Sales were down 0.9% month-over-month in January, while inventories increased 0.4%. The inventory-to-sales ratio rose slightly, to 1.32. This could be bad news if this inventory build is due to falling demand. If demand doesn’t increase enough to absorb this inventory, then we could see a drop in fourth quarter GDP growth. Chances are that the build is due to poor weather, and it should be reversed in the coming months.

Implications for homebuilders

Homebuilders are highly sensitive to the economy. Any sort of slowdown can leave them with excess inventory, and if home prices don’t rise, builders are stuck with depreciating inventory that costs them to maintain and finance. They will look at the recent business inventory numbers as indicating the economy is continuing to recover. Until we see inventory-to-sales ratios spike, they will see nothing in the inventory data to suggest caution—and certainly nothing to suggest that mass layoffs are on the horizon. This should be a positive for homebuilders like Lennar (LEN), KB Home (KBH), Standard Pacific (SPF), Toll Brothers (TOL), and PulteGroup (PHM).


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