Is the U.S. economy enjoying a honeymoon, or is this merely a hiatus? Although this isn’t a subject of discussion among most economists, there will be both good and bad associated with three hurricanes and the California wildfires.
In early summer, the economic data began to surprise to the upside and the momentum has gained traction. The Citigroup Economic Surprise Index recently hit its highest level of the current cycle. But there are signs that beneath the veneer of healthy headlines, household stresses have continued to build and are likely to worsen as losses related to the storms begin to seep into future months’ data.
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In tracking its internal debit-and credit-card data, Bank of America observed that much of the September upside surprise in consumption was propelled by building materials and gasoline. Immediate repairs, rushed deliveries of goods and supplies, and storm-victim relocations undoubtedly drove these sales.
In October, Bank of America’s data showed payback in these areas but strength in furniture stores and discretionary goods. That also makes sense given how many of those who were dislocated have begun to move back into their homes or outfit new, temporary living arrangements.
The Bank of America report also noted that “While the data are cleaner this month, we still see evidence of hurricane distortions, particularly due to Irma.”
It will be some time before the economic data can begin to reflect the full extent of the economic damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico remains in such dire straits, the unemployed have had to mail in their initial jobless claims forms, creating long lags in the reported weekly figures.
The full effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are rapidly showing up in the data. In September, according to Black Knight, the number of mortgages either past due or in foreclosure rose by 214,000, or 9%, compared with August. At 5.1%, the combined rate is far off the previous month’s 4.7% and the most recent low of 4.5% recorded in March 2007.
October’s numbers have brought the picture more clearly into focus. More than 229,000 past-due mortgages are tied to the storms. Hurricane Irma accounted for 163,000 and Harvey, 66,000. To place the damage to households in context, before the storms, Florida and Texas ranked 22nd and 20th among non-current mortgage states. As of October, Florida has risen to second place and Texas is in fifth place.
The economy has also enjoyed a rush of car sales as sufficiently-collateralized and insured drivers immediately replaced vehicles destroyed by the storms. According to the latest retail data, car sales slowed to a 0.7% growth rate in October, far below September’s blistering 4.6-percent pace.
Nonetheless, the next development could be a further deterioration in auto delinquencies attributed to storm victims. The most recent third-quarter data from the New York Fed suggest struggling households continue to buckle under the strains of their monthly payments.