Economy Watch: Housing Starts Dip; E-Commerce, Unemployment Up

Housing starts dropped. E-commerce, on the other hand, continues to flourish despite the downward economy. Unemployment rose slightly.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

According to the Census Bureau on Thursday, housing starts dropped in July to an annualized rate of 746,000. That’s 1.1 percent below the revised June estimate of 754,000, but nevertheless 21.5 percent above the July 2011 annualized rate of 614,000. Unless something radically bad happens later this year, homebuilding will likely end 2012 in better shape than 2011, though admittedly that’s a fairly low bar.

Single-family housing starts in July were at an annualized rate of 502,000, which is 6.5 percent below the revised June figure of 537,000, but 17.5 percent higher than a year ago. The July rate for buildings with five units or more was 229,000, a monthly increase of 9.6 percent, and about 30 percent more than in July 2011, but multi-family construction rates are notoriously volatile.

The forward-looking indicator of permits was up month-over-month in July by 6.8 percent, to an annualized rate of 812,000 units. That’s 29.5 percent above the rate in July 2011. Both single-family and multi-family permitting increased month-over-month and year-over-year.

E-Commerce Continues to Increase

The ever-industrious Census Bureau also reported on Thursday that e-commerce sales for the second quarter of 2012 were $54.8 billion, an increase of 3.3 percent from the first quarter. By comparison, total U.S. retail sales for second quarter were about $1.076 trillion, a decrease of 0.4 percent from the previous quarter.

Year-over-year, e-commerce increased 15.3 percent during the second quarter, while total retail sales increased only 4.3 percent in the same period. The e-commerce increase is consistent with the slow but steady rise of such Internet-based sales, something that not even the recession managed to interrupt.

During the second quarter of 2012, e-commerce accounted for 5.1 percent of total retail sales, according to the bureau. About 10 years ago, e-commerce represented approximately 1.6 percent of total sales. On the eve of the recession in 2008, e-commerce was up to about 3.6 percent of the total.

Initial Unemployment Claims Edge Up

The U.S. Department of Labor reported a small uptick in initial unemployment claims for the week ending August 11, which came in at 366,000, an increase of 2,000 from the previous week. The less excitable four-week moving average was 363,750, a decrease of 5,500 from the previous week’s revised average of 369,250.

Wall Street had an up day on Thursday, the strongest in a while. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 85.33 points, or 0.65 percent, while the S&P 500 was up 0.71 percent and the Nasdaq advanced 1.04 percent.

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