Fed’s Powell, Mnuchin see promise in reallocating unused aid

By Ann Saphir and Howard Schneider

(Reuters) – Hundreds of billions of dollars in unused funds from a $2.3 trillion coronavirus aid package could be reallocated to help U.S. households and businesses, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday.

About $200 billion in money allocated to the Treasury to backstop U.S. central bank loans remains uncommitted, Powell and Mnuchin said in a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee.

Mnuchin also pointed to the $130 billion left in the now-expired Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses, funds he said would his first priority to get approval from Congress to tap and send to needy firms.

In addition, Powell, in response to a question, said most of the $75 billion allocated to the Fed’s largely untapped Main Street Lending Program remains unused.

The focus on reallocating those sums has emerged as Congress has remained deadlocked over providing new fiscal relief that Powell said could make the difference between continued recovery and a much slower economic slog.

While households are spending what’s left of their stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, “the risk is they will go through that money, ultimately, and have to cut back on spending and maybe lose their home or their lease,” Powell said.

“That is the downside risk of no further action. We don’t see much of that yet, but it could well be out there in the not-too-distant future,” Powell said in the last of three hearings in which he testified before Congress this week.

Asked by Republican Senator Mike Crapo, the committee chair, what the best use of the unused funds might be, Powell said it could be spent to help small businesses and households.

Prospects for new fiscal aid are dim less than six weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider, Ann Saphir; Editing by Paul Simao)

U.S. labor market slowing as fiscal stimulus fades

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly increased last week, supporting views the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was running out of steam amid diminishing government funding.

The weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also showed 26 million people were on unemployment benefits in early September. The faltering labor market recovery and a recent rise in new coronavirus infections has piled pressure on Congress and the White House to come up with another rescue package.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers on Wednesday that Congress and the U.S. central bank needed to “stay with it” in working to support the economy’s recovery. More fiscal stimulus is looking increasingly unlikely before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“The high level of joblessness shows that the country isn’t out of the woods yet and it won’t be if the pleading of Fed officials for more stimulus isn’t heard by government officials down in Washington,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “The economy is running on empty.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 870,000 for the week ended Sept. 19. Data for the prior week was revised to show 6,000 more applications received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 840,000 applications in the latest week.

Unadjusted claims increased 28,527 to 824,542 last week. Economists prefer the unadjusted claims number given earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations because of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Six months after the pandemic started in the United States, jobless claims remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession, though applications have dropped from a record 6.867 million at the end of March.

While the reopening of businesses in May boosted activity, demand in the vast services industries has remained lackluster, keeping layoffs elevated. Job cuts have also spread to industries such as financial services and technology that were not initially impacted by the mandated business closures in mid-March because of insufficient demand.

A total 630,080 applications were received for the government-funded pandemic unemployment assistance last week. The PUA is for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs. Altogether, 1.5 million people filed claims last week.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower. The dollar gained versus a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

STALLED PROGRESS

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 167,000 to 12.58 million in the week ending Sept. 12.

Economists believed the so-called continuing claims are declining as people exhaust their eligibility for benefits, which are limited to 26 weeks in most states.

Indeed, just under one million workers exhausted their first six months of state unemployment benefits in August. At least 1.6 million workers filed for extended unemployment benefits in the week ending Sept. 5, up 104,479 from the prior week.

The continuing claims data covered the period during which the government surveyed households for September’s unemployment rate. The decline in mid-September implied a further decrease in the unemployment rate from 8.4% in August.

“Only faster progress against the virus itself will assuage the unemployment struggles of so many workers in fields like entertainment who can’t return to their jobs until social distancing restrictions are relaxed ,” said Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York.

The Fed has cut interest rates to near zero and vowed to keep borrowing costs low for a while, and has also been pumping money into the economy. Government money to help businesses has virtually dried up. Tens of thousands of airline workers are facing layoffs or furloughs next month.

A $600 weekly unemployment benefits supplement ended in July and was replaced with a $300 weekly subsidy, whose funding is already running out. The death toll from COVID-19 in the country topped 200,000 on Tuesday, the highest number of any nation.

The ebbing fiscal stimulus is already restraining the economy after activity rebounded sharply over the summer. Gross domestic product is expected to rebound at as much as a record 32% annualized rate in the third quarter after tumbling at a 31.7% rate in the April-June period, the worst performance since the government started keeping records in 1947.

But retail sales and production at factories moderated in August. Business activity cooled in September, reports have shown. Goldman Sachs on Wednesday cut its fourth-quarter GDP growth estimate to a 3% rate from a 6% pace, citing “lack of further fiscal support.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

U.S. weekly jobless claims remain perched at higher levels; housing marches on

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell less than expected last week and applications for the prior period were revised up, suggesting the labor market recovery had shifted into low gear amid fading fiscal stimulus.

The weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, also showed nearly 30 million people were on unemployment benefits at the end of August.

Signs the labor market was stalling came a day after the Federal Reserve vowed to kept interest rates near zero for a long time. The U.S. central bank noted that the COVID-19 pandemic “will continue to weigh on economic activity” in the near term and “poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said more fiscal support was likely to be needed for the economy.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 33,000 to a seasonally adjusted 860,000 for the week ended Sept. 12. Data for the prior week was revised to show 9,000 more applications received than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 850,000 applications in the latest week.

Un-adjusted claims dropped 75,974 to 790,021 last week. Economists prefer the un-adjusted claims number given earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations because of the economic shock inflected by the coronavirus crisis. Despite last week’s big drop in un-adjusted claims, they remain extraordinarily high.

A total 658,737 applications were received for the government-funded pandemic unemployment assistance last week. The PUA is for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs. Altogether, 1.45 million people filed claims last week.

The claims data added to reports this week showing a slowdown in retail sales and production at factories in August.

U.S. stocks opened lower. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

STALL SPEED

After declining from a record 6.867 million at the end of March as businesses reopened after being shuttered to stem the spread of the coronavirus, claims have flattened, with layoffs spilling over to industries that were not initially impacted by the mandated closures.

A program to help businesses with wages expired in August, while $25 billion in government assistance for airlines’ payroll expires this month. Last week’s claims covered the period during which the government surveyed businesses for the non-farm payrolls component of September’s employment report.

The economy created 1.371 million jobs in August after adding 1.734 million in July. About 10.6 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost at the depth of the coronavirus crisis have been recovered.

While other sectors of the economy are losing steam, the housing market continues to power ahead, thanks to record-low interest rates and a migration to suburbs and low-density areas, spawned by the pandemic. Unemployment has disproportionately affected low-wage workers, who are typically renters.

A separate report from the Commerce Department on Thursday showed singe-family home building, which accounts for the largest share of the housing market, increased 4.1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.021 million units in August.

Further gains are likely, with building permits for single-family housing units accelerating 6.0% to a rate of 1.036 million units. A 22.7% tumble in starts for the volatile multi-family housing segment, however, led to a 5.1% drop in overall home building to a rate of 1.416 million units last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Trump urges Republicans to go for ‘higher numbers’ on coronavirus relief

By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Trump urged his fellow Republicans Wednesday to go for “much higher numbers” in a coronavirus aid bill, as a stalemate continued in Washington over whether to approve more economic relief from the crisis ahead of Nov. 3 elections.

The Senate’s number two Republican, John Thune, reacted cautiously to Trump’s appeal on Twitter.

The standoff dates to mid-May, when the Democratic-majority House of Representatives approved $3.4 trillion in new aid, including unemployment benefits, money for schools, the U.S. Postal Service, and testing.

The Senate’s Republican leaders countered with a $1 trillion plan, but some of their own members balked at that. Last week they put a $300 billion bill up for a vote that Democrats blocked as insufficient.

“Go for the much higher numbers, Republicans, it all comes back to the USA anyway (one way or another!)” Trump wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

Congress and the White House approved more than $3 trillion worth of coronavirus relief measures earlier this year.

Thune, speaking after Trump’s tweet, said proposals had to stay in a “realistic” range. Noting the original $1 trillion Senate Republican plan, he said: “As you go upwards from there you start … losing Republican support pretty quickly.”

A $1.5 trillion compromise floated Tuesday by the House Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of dozens of centrist lawmakers, was attacked by members of both parties, including leading House Democrats. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, however, said it deserved consideration.

Thune said there was some Republican interest in the $1.5 trillion package, but that the $500 trillion it included in aid for state and local governments would be hard for Republican senators to swallow. Meadows told reporters Wednesday that the state and local issue was probably the biggest obstacle to a deal.

Another Republican senator said Wednesday he thought a deal of around $1.5 trillion or $1.7 trillion was possible.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has offered to drop her aid demand to about $2.2 trillion. She faces growing pressure from moderate Democrats to take another vote on COVID-19 relief, but told MSNBC Wednesday that the way forward depends on the willingness of the White House to accept a bill large enough to address the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we want is to put something on the floor that will become law. And so that requires a negotiation,” she said. “We think they (the White House) should come to the table.”

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Republicans to unveil coronavirus aid proposal as time runs out on jobless benefits

By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans on Monday are expected to unveil a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, a starting point for negotiations with Democrats as unemployment benefits that have kept millions of Americans afloat are set to expire.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Sunday that the plan just needed a few clarifications before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could unveil it on Monday afternoon.

Meadows and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said their agreement in principle with Senate Republicans would include an extension of supplemental unemployment benefits that aims to replace 70% of laid off workers’ lost wages.

On Friday, an extra $600 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits is due to expire, severing a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.

But the extra funds – in some cases exceeding a workers’ former wages – was a sticking point for many Republicans, helping to delay agreement during a week of wrangling over the party’s negotiating position.

Some Republicans had complained about the high price tag; the federal government has already spent $3.7 trillion to cushion the economic blow from pandemic-forced shutdowns.

Mnuchin and Meadows earlier on Sunday floated the idea of a piecemeal approach to coronavirus aid, first addressing unemployment and demands by businesses and schools to be shielded from coronavirus-related lawsuits, while tackling other issues later.

“We are going to be prepared, on Monday, to provide unemployment insurance extension that would be 70% of wages,” Meadows said on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday.

DEMOCRATS’ DEMANDS

Democrats decried the Republican delay as U.S. coronavirus cases passed the 4 million mark, a milestone for a pandemic that has killed more than 146,000 people in the United States and thrown tens of millions out of work.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that if necessary, the House would stay in session until a deal is passed and added that Democrats would not accept a measure urged by Republicans to include liability protections for employers.

“What we will not support is what they’re saying to essential workers: ‘You have to go to work because you’re essential, we place no responsibility on your employer to make that workplace safe and if you get sick you have no recourse because we’ve given your employer protection,'” she said.

Pelosi has said that House Democrats would pursue the $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill that they passed in May, which would extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits through the end of 2020.

The Republican plan will include another round of direct payments of $1,200 for individuals, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNN. He said it also would extend a federal moratorium on housing evictions contained in previous relief legislation.

Senate aides said the Republican plan also have more help for small businesses, $105 billion for schools, $16 billion for coronavirus testing, and legal protections for business that are reopening.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney and Gerry Doyle)

Americans on COVID-19 jobless benefits spent more than when working, study shows

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – Americans who received enhanced unemployment benefits due to the coronavirus pandemic spent more than when they were working, a study released on Thursday said, adding to concerns about a steep fall in spending when the emergency benefits expire.

The $600 weekly supplement added to jobless benefits as part of the CARES Act helped unemployed households spend 10% more after receiving benefits than they did before the pandemic, according to research by the JP Morgan Chase Institute.

Researchers analyzed transactions for 61,000 households that received unemployment benefits between March and May. Spending dropped for all households as the virus spread and led to business shutdowns, but then rose when households began receiving jobless benefits, the study found.

That contrasts with a typical recession, when households receiving unemployment benefits usually cut spending by 7% because regular jobless benefits amount to only a fraction of a person’s prior earnings, the research found.

The analysis highlighted how the additional unemployment benefits are helping to prop up the U.S. economy and consumer spending after the pandemic led to a surge in joblessness across the country.

More than 30 million Americans are estimated to be receiving unemployment benefits – and they could be pushed off an income cliff when the supplemental benefits, which are due to expire at the end of July, are withdrawn.

“Our estimates suggest that expiration will result in large spending cuts, with potentially negative effects on both households and macroeconomic activity,” the researchers wrote.

The data also reflected the financial pain faced by households that encountered big delays in collecting benefits after states across the country were overwhelmed by applications.

Households that had to wait several weeks for their first unemployment check to arrive cut spending by about 20%, the study found. Spending recovered after the checks arrived.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; editing by Richard Pullin)

U.S. labor market recovery stalling; second wave of layoffs underway

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell last week, but the pace of decline appears to have stalled amid a second wave of layoffs as companies battle weak demand and fractured supply chains, supporting views that the economy faces a long and difficult recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

The Labor Department’s weekly jobless claims report on Thursday, the most timely data on the economy’s health, sketched a picture of a distressed labor market even though employers hired a record 2.5 million workers in May as businesses reopened after shuttering in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19. At least 29 million people are collecting unemployment checks.

Stubbornly high joblessness could stifle the nascent signs of economic recovery that had been flagged by a record jump in retail sales in May and a sharp rebound in permits for future home construction. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell told lawmakers this week that “significant uncertainty remains about the timing and strength of the recovery.”

The economy fell into recession in February.

“The recent sightings of green shoots for economic growth are going to fade in a hurry if workers can’t return to the jobs they lost during the pandemic recession,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “Over 20 million out of work without a paycheck is a lot of spending missing from the economy.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 58,000 to a seasonally adjusted 1.508 million for the week ended June 13, the government said. Data for the prior week was revised to show 24,000 more applications received than previously reported, bringing the tally for that period to 1.566 million.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims dropping to 1.3 million in the latest week. The 11th straight weekly decrease pushed claims further away from a record 6.867 million in late March. Still, claims are more than double their peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession.

“The fear of a second wave of layoffs, as industries not directly affected by COVID-caused shutdowns have started to shed workers, appears to have begun,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.

A separate report from the Philadelphia Fed on Thursday showed labor market conditions remained depressed in June at factories in the mid-Atlantic region even as manufacturing activity in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware rebounded sharply.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower on the claims report and rising COVID-19 infections in parts of the country. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

MILLIONS ON UNEMPLOYMENT ROLLS

From manufacturing, retail, information technology and oil and gas production, companies have announced job cuts. State and local governments, whose budgets have been shattered by the COVID-19 fight, are also cutting jobs.

Economists expect an acceleration in layoffs when the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, part of a historic fiscal package worth nearly $3 trillion, giving businesses loans that can be partially forgiven if used for wages, runs out.

They attributed to the PPP a drop in the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid from a record 24.912 million in early May. But these so-called continued claims, which are reported with a one-week lag, also appear to have since stalled. The claims report showed continuing claims dropped 62,000 to 20.544 million the week ending June 6.

Initial claims covered the week during which the government surveyed establishments for the nonfarm payrolls component of June’s employment report. But economists cautioned that claims were no longer a good predictor of job growth.

The government has expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to include the self-employed and independent contractors who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including through lost employment, reduced hours and wages. These workers do not qualify for the regular state unemployment insurance.

They must file under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program and are not included in the initial claims count. Applications for PUA increased 66,063 to 760,526 last week.

A total of 29.2 million people were receiving unemployment benefits under all programs during the week ending May 30, the latest available data, down from 29.5 million in the prior period.

“Employment may rise on a net basis in June as the economy reopens and workers are recalled, but the initial claims data suggest that there is still a steady stream of new layoffs as corporations adjust to the new coronavirus reality,” said Lou Crandall, chief economist of Wrightson ICAP in Jersey City, New Jersey.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Americans are spending coronavirus checks on rent and groceries

By Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – When Jessica Rosner saw the $1,200 coronavirus relief payment from the U.S. government was deposited into her bank account Wednesday morning, the furloughed behavioral therapist knew immediately how she would spend the cash.

The unemployment benefits she applied for two weeks ago have yet to come through. And Rosner, 23, who lives near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, still owed nearly $1,500 for April’s rent and about $200 for car insurance.

The “Economic Impact Payments” being issued under the $2.3 trillion CARES Act passed by Congress last month started landing in consumers’ bank accounts this week. The relief payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child are meant to soften some of the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

Americans’ lives have been upended by the crisis, with most schools and businesses closed, vacations canceled, and families mourning the more than 31,000 people killed by the virus.

The relief money is arriving in bank accounts as states across the country struggle to process unemployment claims filed by more than 22 million Americans over the past month, and helping some people cover the essentials.

“It’s going to get used quickly because there are so many people who need money right now,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist and now the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Preliminary results from a survey Sahm is conducting with Google and the University of Michigan suggest U.S. families plan to spend the money on essentials or pay off debt, Sahm said. That is the way stimulus checks were used during the financial crisis of 2008 and to counter an economic slowdown during the summer of 2001, she said.

Some people said they were planning to save the cash temporarily, an indication the payments may not lead to the immediate economic stimulation hoped for by the government.

Hyniah Herrin, 26, wanted to enroll in college this fall but put those plans on hold after she lost her two part-time jobs as a school bus driver and restaurant host in Philadelphia. The stimulus money landed in her bank account on Monday, and she’s holding on to it. “We don’t know when we’re going to be able to resume life,” Herrin said.

Steve Davison, 61, says the workload in his part-time job handling social media advertising for a forklift distributor hasn’t decreased because of the coronavirus outbreak. But Davison, who has not received a payment yet, said he is still living paycheck to paycheck and is worried about the future.

After he pays an old tax bill, he plans to hold on to the rest of the cash. “I’m just going to stash it because you never know what’s going to come up,” said Davison, who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Treasury Department Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier this week that more than 80 million Americans would have the money deposited directly into their bank accounts by Wednesday morning.

Those who haven’t received the money can check their status and provide bank account information through a new “Get My Payment” app. Paper checks bearing President Donald Trump’s name on them will be sent out starting early next week to people who don’t use direct deposit.

(Reporting by Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Heather Timmons and Paul Simao)

Upbeat data suggest U.S. economy still on moderate growth path

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits increased less than expected last week, pointing to strong labor market conditions that should continue to support an economy growing at a moderate pace.

The steady economic growth pace was also underscored by other data on Thursday showing home resales rising in August to a 17-month high. While factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region slowed in September, orders remained solid, leading manufacturers in the region to increase employment and boost hours for workers.

The reports suggested that housing and manufacturing, the two weak spots in the economy, were stabilizing. The Federal Reserve cut interest rates by another 25 basis points on Wednesday, citing risks to the longest economic expansion in history from a year-long U.S.-China trade war and slowing economic growth overseas.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell said he expected the economy, now in its 11th year of expansion, to continue to “expand at a moderate rate,” but noted trade tensions were “weighing on U.S. investment and exports.”

The U.S. central bank cut rates in July for the first time since 2008. The Fed offered mixed signals on further monetary policy easing. Data, including retail sales, so far in the third quarter suggest the economy is growing close to the April-June quarter’s 2.0% annualized rate.

Financial markets have been flagging a recession. The Atlanta Fed is estimating gross domestic product rising at a 1.9% pace this quarter.

“Fed officials are done cutting interest rates for the rest of this year and one of the reasons for this is that the economic data continue to surprise us on the upside,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 208,000 for the week ended Sept. 14, the government said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims increasing to 213,000 in the latest week.

Layoffs remain low despite the trade tensions, which have weighed on business investment and manufacturing. But there are concerns that slowing job growth could take some shine off robust consumer spending, which is largely driving the economy.

Last week’s claims data covered the survey period for the nonfarm payrolls component of September’s employment report. Claims were little changed between the August and September survey periods suggesting a steady pace of job growth this month.

The economy created 130,000 jobs in August. Economists say it is unclear whether the loss of momentum in hiring is due to ebbing demand for labor or a shortage of qualified workers.

Job gains have averaged 158,000 per month this year, still above the roughly 100,000 per month needed to keep up with growth in the working-age population and sustain a healthy pace of consumer spending.

“If there was a problem in the labor market it would be visible in initial claims and they are not raising any red flags,” said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “Though business confidence has dropped noticeably this year, it hasn’t led businesses to lay off workers yet.”

The dollar fell against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasuries rose. Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher, with Microsoft’s planned share buy-back helping to push the benchmark S&P 500 within striking distance of its record high.

SOLID HOME SALES

In a second report on Thursday, the National Association of Realtors said existing-home sales increased 1.3% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.49 million units last month.

That was the second straight monthly gain in sales and confounded economists expectations for a 0.4% drop to 5.37 million units.

The increase in home resales, which make up about 90 percent of U.S. home sales, came on the heels of data on Wednesday showing housing starts and building permits surged to a more than 12-year high in August. The housing market, which hit a soft patch last year, is being lifted by lower mortgage rates.

But the sector is not yet out of the woods as builders continue to grapple with land and labor shortages, which have constrained their ability to construct more of the sought-after lower-priced homes.

“It appears that the housing market is gaining some momentum as autumn approaches,” said Matthew Speakman, an economist at online real estate database company Zillow. “Even stronger sales volumes may be around the corner given that mortgage rates plummeted in August.”

In a third report, the Philadelphia Fed said it’s business conditions index fell to a reading of 12.0 in September from 16.8 in August. The survey’s measure of new orders dipped to 24.8 this month from 25.8.

Its measure of factory employment in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware jumped to a reading of 15.8 in September from 3.6 in the prior month. A gauge of the factory workweek increased to a reading of 13.0 from 6.8 in August.

Manufacturing, which makes up about 11% of the economy, has shouldered the brunt of the U.S.-China trade war. A measure of national manufacturing activity contracted in August for the first time in three years.

While factory surveys have remained weak, so-called hard data have suggested the manufacturing downturn could soon run its course. Manufacturing production rebounded 0.5% in August after falling 0.4% in July, the Fed reported on Tuesday.

“It is hard to explain the month-to-month changes in the different business surveys and the differences across the various measures, but with manufacturing output rising in recent months, some of the other surveys that have been weak may start to firm up and look more like the Philadelphia Fed survey,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikan, Additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Chris Reese and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. consumer spending strong; manufacturing struggling

FILE PHOTO: People tour The Shops during the grand opening of The Hudson Yards development, a residential, commercial, and retail space on Manhattan's West side in New York City, New York, U.S., March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales surged in July as consumers bought a range of goods even as they cut back on motor vehicle purchases, which could help to assuage financial market fears that the economy was heading into recession.

The upbeat report from the Commerce Department on Thursday, however, will likely not change expectations that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates again next month as news from the manufacturing sector remains dour, underscoring the darkening outlook for the economy against the backdrop of trade tensions and slowing growth overseas.

A key part of the U.S. Treasury yield curve inverted on Wednesday for the first time since June 2007, triggering a stock market sell-off. An inverted Treasury yield curve is historically a reliable predictor of looming recessions.

Financial markets have fully priced in a 25-basis-point rate cut at the U.S. central bank’s Sept. 17-18 policy meeting. The Fed lowered its short-term interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point last month, citing the acrimonious U.S.-China trade war and slowing global economies.

But the data could push markets to dial back expectations of a 50-basis-point rate cut next month.

“So yes, consumers are lifting economic growth and easing pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut more aggressively, but the trade war itself, and the rhetoric that accompanies it will push for more rate cuts,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Retail sales increased 0.7% last month after gaining 0.3% in June, the government said. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would rise 0.3% in July. Compared to July last year, retail sales increased 3.4%.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales jumped 1.0% last month after advancing by an unrevised 0.7% in June. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

U.S. stock index futures extended gains after the release of the data. U.S. Treasury yields rose while the dollar <.DXY> was slightly weaker against a basket of currencies.

STRONG LABOR MARKET

July’s gain in core retail sales suggested strong consumer spending early in the third quarter, though the pace will likely slow from the April-June quarter’s robust 4.3% annualized rate. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, is being underpinned by the lowest unemployment rate in nearly half a century.

While a separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed an increase in the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits last week, the trend in claims continued to point to a strong labor market.

Solid consumer spending is blunting some of the hit on the economy from the downturn in manufacturing, which is underscored by weak business investment. There are, however, red flags for the labor market coming from manufacturing.

The sector’s struggles were highlighted by a third report from the Fed on Thursday showing factory production dropped 0.4% in July. Output at factories has declined more than 1.5% since December 2018. Manufacturing, which makes up about 12% of the economy, is also being weighed down by an inventory overhang, especially in the automotive sector.

Manufacturing productivity tumbled at its fastest pace in nearly two years in the second quarter, with factories cutting hours for workers, another report from the Labor Department showed.

Manufacturing’s troubles appear to have persisted into the third quarter. Though a report from the Philadelphia Fed on Thursday showed factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region slowed less than expected in August amid an increase in new orders, manufacturers reported hiring fewer workers.

A measure of factory employment dropped to its lowest level since November 2016. The weakness in factory employment in the region that covers eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware was mirrored by another survey from the New York Fed. Activity in New York state was little changed this month, with employment measures deteriorating further.

“The health of factories is still an important driver of growth and the soft patch for production remains a factor that is keeping economic growth in the slow lane,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

The economy grew at a 2.1% rate in the second quarter, decelerating from the first quarter’s 3.1% pace. Growth estimates for the third quarter are below a 2.0% rate.

In July, auto sales fell 0.6% after rising 0.3% in June. Receipts at service stations rebounded 1.8%, reflecting higher gasoline prices. Sales at building material stores gained 0.2%.

Receipts at clothing stores increased 0.8%. Online and mail-order retail sales jumped 2.8%, the most in six months, after rising 1.9% in June. They were likely boosted by Amazon.com Inc’s <AMZN.O> Prime Day.

Receipts at furniture stores rose 0.3%. Sales at restaurants and bars accelerated 1.1%. But spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores dropped 1.1% last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)