Housing activity remained depressed but seemed to have leveled off in February and March. In contrast, businesses cut production and employment substantially in recent months--likely reflecting, in part, inventory overhangs that persisted into the early part of the year--and fixed investment continued to contract. Headline and core consumer prices rose at a moderate pace over the first three months of the year.
Labor market conditions deteriorated further in March. Private nonfarm payroll employment registered its fifth consecutive large monthly decrease, with losses widespread across industries. Moreover, the average workweek of production and nonsupervisory workers on private payrolls ticked down in March from the low level recorded in January and February, and total hours worked for this group stayed below the fourth-quarter average.
Industrial production fell substantially in March and for the first quarter as a whole, with cutbacks widespread across sectors, and manufacturing capacity utilization decreased to a very low level. In contrast, the production of communications equipment edged up in the first quarter. The output of other consumer durables and business equipment stayed low, and broad indicators of near-term manufacturing activity suggested that factory output would contract over the next few months.
Despite the upturn in consumer spending, the fundamentals for this sector remained weak: Wages and salaries dropped, house prices were markedly lower than a year ago, and, despite recent increases, equity prices were down substantially from their levels of 12 months earlier.
The latest readings from the housing market suggested that the contraction in housing activity might have moderated over the first quarter. [TD:Nope]
Real spending on equipment and software dropped markedly in the first quarter, with declines about as steep and widespread as in the fourth quarter of 2008. Orders and shipments of nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft fell in March, turning negative again after having been flat in February. The fundamental determinants of equipment and software investment stayed weak in the first quarter: Business output continued to drop sharply, and credit availability was still tight. Despite the significant cuts in production in recent quarters, inventories remained sizable early in the year, although the overhang appeared to be less severe than in late 2008. Given the elevated level of inventories, firms continued their efforts to reduce their stocks.
M2 expanded rapidly in March. A strong increase in liquid deposits, the largest component of M2, likely reflected further reallocations by households toward safer assets. Retail money market mutual funds and small time deposits contracted modestly. Currency growth was apparently bolstered by elevated foreign demand. [Oh really?]