US builders broke ground on fewer homes last month, but a jump in permits for future construction to a four-and-a-half-year high indicated the housing market recovery remains on track.
Another report on Wednesday showed wholesale prices rose last month for the first time in four months. However, the gain was smaller than expected and left scope for the US Federal Reserve to keep buying bonds to stimulate the economy.
Housing starts dropped 8.5 percent last month to an 890,000-unit annual rate, pulled down by a sharp drop in the volatile multi-family unit category, the Department of Commerce said.
Starts for single-family homes hit their highest level since July 2008, and permits for future construction, which lead starts by at least a month, were at their highest level since June 2008.
The drop in starts followed an outsized gain in December last year and was confined to the northeast and midwest, suggesting winter weather likely contributed to the pullback.
“The fundamentals are there and the drivers are looking good,” said Patrick Newport, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts. “We see more new construction this year. The only question is whether it will be in the multi-family or single-family segment.”
Housing has shifted from being a headwind for the economy to being a pillar of support, although mortgage rates have crept higher in recent weeks, cooling loan demand.
Luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers on Wednesday reported disappointing quarterly results, hurt in part by lower selling prices, but other homebuilders have been able to take advantage of the recovering market.
A separate report from the US Department of Labor showed producer prices rose 0.2 percent last month as rebounding food costs offset declining gasoline prices. Wholesale prices had slipped 0.3 percent in December last year, and economists had expected them to rise 0.4 percent last month.
Food prices accounted for more than 75 percent of the rise in wholesale prices last month.
Away from the spike in food prices, the producer price report showed inflation pressures were generally muted.
In the 12 months through last month, wholesale prices were up 1.4 percent and data to be released yesterday was expected to show consumer inflation below the central bank’s goal of 2 percent.
“Inflationary pressures remain well contained,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.
“The Federal Reserve would rather see inflation slightly higher in response to stronger economic conditions than benign because the recovery remains tepid,” she said.
In an effort to drive down borrowing costs and spur stronger growth, the Fed last year launched an open-ended bond buying program and said it would keep it up until it saw a substantial improvement in the outlook for the labor market.
Wholesale prices excluding volatile food and energy costs edged up 0.2 percent last month after gaining 0.1 percent in December. In the 12 months through last month, those so-called core prices rose 1.8 percent, the smallest gain since February 2011.
A surge in the cost of fresh and dried vegetables pushed up food prices last month.
Gasoline prices surprisingly recorded another substantial decline last month, even though prices at the pump have been rising almost every week this year.
The core Producer Price Index was lifted by a jump in the cost of drugs, while passenger car and light truck prices fell, the labor department report showed.