Wages flat, home prices up

INDICATOR: February Case-Shiller Home Prices/1st Quarter Employment Costs

KEY DATA: Case-Shiller (20-City): 1.2%; Year-over-Year: 9.3%/Wages and Salaries (Year-over-Year): 1.6%

IN A NUTSHELL: "A sluggish economy may be holding back wage gains but it is not stopping the surge in housing prices."

WHAT IT MEANS: And the beat goes on. For those who think the Fed's policy of keeping rates down is a failure that will only lead to surging inflation, well, you are wrong and right. Wrong because the sector that the Fed is targeting the most, housing, remains the one truly bright light in the economy. Right because housing prices continue to rise sharply, as we saw in the February S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index report. The gain over the month was impressive and we are approaching double-digits compared to 2012 price levels. When adjusted for seasonality, every metropolitan area posted a gain both over the month and over the year. The increases from February 2012 range from a low of 1.9% in New York City to 23% in Phoenix. Half the areas had increases in excess of ten percent while another three are poised to join the ranks as their gains exceeded nine percent.

While prices in the housing market may be rising, worker earnings remain restrained. Compensation rose modestly during the first part of the year though wage gains did pick up a touch. The growing manufacturing sector is paying more and wages in the public sector are rising much slower than in the private sector, which is not going up very quickly at all. Looking across the country, compensation jumped the most in Atlanta and the least in Phoenix.

MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The sharp jump in housing costs may make some worry but I have my best Alfred E. Neuman face on. The more people who get back above water, the more homes that will come on the market and the bidding frenzy that is going on in some places will ease. Limited supply, coupled with the low prices, is allowing people to bid up asking prices but how long that will last is good question. The Fed started its two-day meeting and some are looking for a sign that the massive easing program will be ending this year. With first quarter growth less than hoped for and with sequestration and tax increases kicking in, the FOMC is in no hurry to allow rates to start rising. That should keep the demand for housing up and price gains high. The lack of wage increases is an issue as prices continue to rise. Qualifying becomes more difficult. But for now, the benefits of strong home price increases far outweigh the risks to the housing market of the modest worker compensation gains. Investors should like these reports as they point to controlled business compensation costs and continued housing strength. But this is still earnings season and the markets have come a long way so who knows where the indices will go on any given day.