A trade group reported yesterday, sales of existing homes dropped to their lowest level in nearly two years in January, and the number of unsold homes on the market rose. A survey showed a surprising dip in consumer expectations, and the Commerce Department revised upward measures of economic growth and inflation in the fourth quarter, also reported yesterday.
The three major stock indicators all fell about 1 percent. "On balance," said James O'Sullivan, an economist at UBS, "people view the economy as pretty strong." But the housing and consumer figures "are definitely negative," he said, adding: "The trend in the home sales is the clearest. It's pretty unambiguous that demand for housing has been weakening in the last couple of months." The new data, along with comments yesterday from a Google executive that the company's growth in search-related advertising revenue was inevitably slowing, seemed to concern investors.
It was the fifth consecutive monthly decline in sales, which are down 10 percent from their pace in September. The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of existing homes fell 2.8 percent in January, to an annual pace of 6.56 million.
Sales of condominiums and co-op apartments, which have soared in price in recent years, declined 11 percent in January
At the current pace of sales, that would be a 5.3-month supply, up from 5.1 months in December. The number of homes available for sale at the end of January was up 35.7 percent from a year earlier, to 2.91 million.
The status of the nation's long housing boom is weighing heavily on the minds of economists and consumers because the growth in home values, and the ability to tap into it with cheaper mortgages and home-equity loans, has been behind much of the consumer spending in recent years. On Monday, the Commerce Department reported that the sales of new homes fell 5 percent in January from a year earlier.
Median prices — half the homes sold for more and half for less — increased 11.6 percent from a year earlier, to $211,000. By comparison, prices rose 10.5 percent in December, 13.2 percent in November and 16.6 percent in October from the corresponding periods the year before. Prices, though, do not seem to be falling, although they are not rising as fast as they did most of last year.
Lynn Franco, director of the board's consumer research center, said some of the concern seemed to be based on the increases in mortgage rates and a drop in refinancing activity. In another report yesterday, the Conference Board said that its consumer confidence index fell to 101.7 this month, from 106.8 in January, as Americans expressed greater concern about their future job prospects and earnings power.
Ms. Franco added that consumers considered jobs plentiful now and that their wages were increasing, but that those gains were being negated by higher gasoline, electricity and other prices. "There is a growing feeling," she said, "that business conditions and labor conditions are not going to be as strong in the second half of the year as in the first half."
Excluding food and energy, the index was also up 3.3 percent, compared with 2.8 percent in the third quarter. The Commerce Department revised upward one gauge of inflation, the fourth-quarter gross domestic product price index, to 3.3 percent, from an earlier estimate of 3 percent.
The increase resulted from revisions in data on federal spending, equipment and software and inventories. Initial government estimates of economic growth are frequently revised higher. The department also revised upward its estimate of fourth-quarter economic growth to 1.6 percent, from its previous estimate of 1.1 percent.
Richard Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research in New York, predicted that "expectations of future growth and inflation are going to force the Fed to be more aggressive rather than sit on the sidelines." Federal Reserve policy makers have indicated that they may have to raise the benchmark short-term interest rate further; it is now at 4.5 percent after a two-year campaign to increase the cost of borrowing.
It was the third consecutive drop in the index, which measures the economic expectations of producers in the Midwest; readings above 50 indicate plans for growth. Separately, the Chicago Purchasing Managers monthly index dropped to 54.9 this month, from 58.5.