WASHINGTON – Construction spending edged up slightly in November as a continued steep slump in housing was offset by record spending on government and business projects. But a key gauge of manufacturing activity fell in December to the lowest point in almost five years.
The Commerce Department reported that spending on construction projects rose by 0.1 percent in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $1.165 trillion, a better performance than what economists expected. Spending had fallen by 0.4 percent in October.
The small improvement came despite the fact that housing fell for a record 21st straight month, with private residential construction dropping by 2.5 percent to an annual rate of $484.9 billion, down by 17.5 percent from a year ago.
However, a closely watched gauge of manufacturing activity showed the factory sector contracted in December, the first decline after 10 months of gains.
The Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index dropped to 47.7 in December, down from 50.8 in November. It was the weakest showing since April 2003 during the period of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Any reading below 50 is considered a sign that manufacturing is contracting rather than expanding.
The much weaker-than-expected reading on the manufacturing sector and a spike in oil prices up to $100 a barrel triggered recession worries on Wall Street and sent stocks plunging.
“The contraction in manufacturing activity is yet another indication that the housing market problems are becoming more widespread,” said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.
Nigel Gault, an economist at Global Insight, another forecasting firm, said the manufacturing decline “clearly moves recession risks higher.”
Home builders have been battered by the worst slump in the housing market in more than two decades, a decline that occurred after five boom years that had pushed home sales and prices to record levels. Analysts believe the slowdown in housing will last through much of 2008, forcing builders to keep slashing their construction plans in an effort to reduce a backlog of unsold homes.
The housing meltdown has been exacerbated by an increase in mortgage foreclosures, which dumps more homes on an already glutted market, and tighter lending standards by banks, which is making it more difficult to qualify for a mortgage.
The housing slump could push the country into a full-blown recession, but economists believe that worst-case scenario can be avoided if the Federal Reserve keeps cutting interest rates. The Fed cut rates three times last year starting in September.
The blow to the construction industry from the housing meltdown is being cushioned by strength in government projects and non-residential activity.