Economy Watch: Homebuilders Less Glum; PPI Spikes; BofA Shrinks

Homebuilder confidence rose in October, after little positive direction since April 2010, while the Producer Price Index surged by 0.8 percent, higher than expected, and Bank of America relinquished its title of largest U.S. bank to JP Morgan Chase.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

It’s probably a case of “nowhere to go but up,” but even so it counts as good news that homebuilder confidence rose four points to 18 on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) for October, which was released on Tuesday. The index hasn’t moved that much–more in an upward direction, that is–more since April 2010, back when Congress tried some unsuccessful artificial respiration on the housing market in the form of the new homebuyer tax credit.

All of the HMI’s three component indexes experienced gains in October, something that hasn’t happened recently, either. The component gauging current sales conditions rose four points to 18, while the sales-expectations-in-the-next-six-months component rose seven points to 24, a remarkable high (although a sign of optimism is really more than 50). The component reflecting traffic of prospective buyers rose three points to 14.

“This latest boost in builder confidence is a good sign that some pockets of recovery are starting to emerge across the country as extremely favorable interest rates and prices catch consumers’ attention,” said NAHB chief economist David Crowe in a statement. He didn’t want anyone to get carried away by the news, however. “It’s worth noting that while some builders have shifted their assessment of market conditions from ‘poor’ to ‘fair,’ relatively few have shifted their assessments from ‘fair’ to ‘good,’ “ he added.

A Surprise Spurt for the PPI

The Producer Price Index for finished goods spiked 0.8 percent in September, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on Tuesday. It was a stronger upward surge than economists expected, since finished goods prices were unchanged in August and increased only 0.2 percent in July.

The rise in the price of finished goods was the result of a chain reaction started by the ever-volatile price of crude oil, which passed its volatility along to gasoline. The Producer Price Index for crude materials moved upward 2.8 percent in September, spurred by energy costs, which jumped 7.7 percent during the month, after dropping 5.1 percent over the course of the three months of summer.

Though the price for “crude foods” dropped a smallish 0.9 percent in September, prices for finished consumer foods climbed 0.6 percent in September, the fourth consecutive monthly increase. Accounting for more than 80 percent of the September advance in finished food was prices for fresh and dry vegetables–up 10 percent.

The Incredible Shrinking Bank of America

Even through it has $2.2 trillion in assets, according to its third quarter earnings report, which was released on Tuesday, Bank of America is no longer the largest bank in the United States. JP Morgan Chase now holds that informal title, with $2.3 trillion in assets (more specifically, a difference of $70 billion–more than Bill Gates is worth). Chase also has more total deposits and branches.

BofA’s balance sheet is famously shrinking, but the bank is also deliberately shedding assets in an effort to lose less money­ (though it did report a profit for the quarter of $6.2 billion, mostly because of accounting gains and asset sales). The former Countrywide Financial, which Bank of America bought in 2008 in its frenetic effort to be the largest financial institution in the history of mankind, or maybe the visible universe, remains an albatross around its neck.

Wall Street dusted itself off on Tuesday and decided that maybe the news from Europe wasn’t so bad, so the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 180.05 points, or 1.58 percent, making up much of Monday’s losses. The S&P 500 likewise advanced 2.04 percent, and the Nasdaq was up 1.63 percent.

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