Thursday May 17, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Maybe the U.S. economy’s strength this winter wasn’t just weather-related after all.

Home construction is near a three-year high. And factory output has risen in three of the year’s first four months.

The data released Wednes day suggest growth in the April-June quarter is off to a good start, helped by falling gas prices and solid hiring gains. Fears of a spring slump are easing.

"It’s all very encouraging," said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics. "Things look good at the moment."

Builders broke ground in April at a seasonally adjusted annual pace of 717,000 homes, the Commerce Department said. That nearly matches January’s pace, the best since October 2008.

Construction rose for both single-family homes and apartments.

Some economists have noted that a warm winter led companies to move up some hiring and accelerate other activity -- including homebuilding -- that normally wouldn’t occur until spring. That gave the appearance that the economy had strengthened in January and February and weakened in March.

But Ashworth noted that the overall trend in housing starts has been running at roughly the same annual pace -- approximately 700,000 -- over the past six months. That’s 100,000 more on average than the pace for the previous six months.


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Ashworth said the higher level suggests demand is increasing and the mild winter had less effect than some economists had thought.

"We expect starts to strengthen further this year," Ashworth wrote in a note to clients.

Even with the gains, the rate of construction for all homes is only about half the 1.5 million annual pace that most economists consider healthy. But the increase, along with rising builder confidence and stronger job growth, is a sign that the home market may finally be starting to recover nearly five years after the housing bubble burst.