In several pieces of encouraging though not conclusive news for the economy, the Commerce Department yesterday reported that housing starts, personal income and personal spending made gains in July. In addition, the rate of savings showed an increase, another potentially good sign for the beleaguered housing market which has suffered from high interest rates and lack of money available for home loans.
The sagging U.S. housing industry revived slightly in July, with housing starts rising 3.3 percent after falling more than 10 percent in each of the previous two months, the Commerce Department reported yesterday.
But permits for future construction fell for the third straight month, declining 4 percent and giving a strong indication that the nation's builders have not yet reached the bottom of this year's slump.
Both housing industry and government analysts said no real recovery is likely before there is a decline in record interest rates that make it difficult for builders to finance new construction and all but impossible for any but rich Americans to buy new houses.
In a separate report, the department said Americans' personal income made its largest gain in a year last month, jumping 1.6 percent, or $37 billion, from its June level, mostly because of boosts from rising employment and a midyear increase in Social Security payments.
The Commerce Department's measure of personal spending for July showed the biggest increase since January -- 1.16 percent -- reflecting in part the income received in June, which was up 0.7 percent after revision.
The total personal consumption expenditure category accounts for about two-thirds of the nation's gross national product.
Analysts inside and outside the government saw favorable implications for the overall economy in the income gain and in the July increase in Americans' personal spending.
But they were not ready to declare a complete end to the sluggish conditions that have plagued the economy for the past six months.
New savings in July rose just over 9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $113 billion, the report said.
That brought the national savings rate, which has been unusually low for a year or more, to 5.4 percent of disposable income in June, up from 5.3 percent in May and well up from February's 4.6 percent.
Despite the slight rise in housing starts, government and industry analysts questioned the importance of the figures and indicated they probably are little more than a blip in the severely depressed market.
"The pause that doesn't refresh," was how the July gain was characterized by Mark J. Riedy, executive vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, paraphrasing an old soft drink slogan.
"We hear that builders are dying on the vine, selling off lots" rather than building houses they can't sell, he said.
New units were started at an annual rate of 1.06 million in July, postponing but hardly ending the possibility that starts will slip below an annual rate of 1 million for the first time since May 1980.
The July increase in personal income was the largest since the 1.6 percent reported for July 1980.