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May US housing starts rise 3.6%, building permits fall 3% on month: US Census

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Platts Market Data Metals

May US housing starts rise 3.6%, building permits fall 3% on month: US Census

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Lower building permit authorizations could signal moderation in housing boom

Construction push has helped push PVC prices to record highs

US housing starts in May rose 3.6% from April, but authorized building permits fell 3% on the month, possibly signaling some moderation of a housing construction boom that has lasted a year, according to US Census Bureau data released June 16.

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May housing starts reached 1.572 million units, up from 1.517 million in April, the data showed. Privately owned housing units authorized by building permits reached 1.681 million units, down 3% from 1.733 million units in April.

That housing boom has pushed US prices for polyvinyl chloride, a construction staple used to make pipes, window frames, vinyl siding, and other products, to record highs on strong demand and tight supply.

Export PVC prices were last assessed June 9 at $1,600/mt FAS Houston, down 11% from $1,800/mt FAS April 21, which was a record since S&P Global Platts began assessing the market in 1983.

Domestic PVC prices were last assessed June 9 at 88-90 cents/lb ($1,940-$1,984/mt), an all-time high since Platts began assessing that market in 2001. Domestic PVC prices have gained 42 cents/lb ($926/mt) since June 2020 as repeated price increases were largely accepted amid the housing boom and supply constraints because of hurricanes, operational issues, turnarounds, and fallout from weeks-long shutdowns when a deep freeze hit the US Gulf Coast in mid-February.

In April 2020, amid the height of coronavirus pandemic-related shutdowns, US export PVC prices fell 39% in six weeks to a 12-year low of $520/mt FAS on April 29, 2020, Platts data showed. Domestic prices fell 8 cents/lb ($176/mt) in April and May 2020 to 46-48 cents/lb ($1,014-$1,058/mt) by mid-June 2020.

Housing starts, building permits surge

May's housing starts data reflects the comeback from those 2020 lows. May 2021 housing starts were up 50.3% from 1.046 million units in May 2020, when construction activity plunged amid pandemic-related shutdowns. May 2021 building permits also were 34.9% higher than the May 2020 rate of 1.246 million units, the data showed.

The fallout from the February freeze included some distortions in housing starts data, market sources said. February housing starts fell to 1.447 million units from 1.625 million units in January, but March levels surged to 1.725 million units, reflecting a rush to catch up after February's freeze-related slowdown.

Some market sources said the housing boom may have peaked in January, and prices for some construction inputs have begun declining from record-high levels. On Tuesday, lumber futures closed at $1,009.90 per 1,000 board feet on the Nasdaq, down 30.5% from $1,453 May 21.

"The question is, the lumber in inventory probably will not come down as fast," a PVC source noted.

Market sources expect domestic PVC prices to remain elevated into the third quarter because supply remains tight amid operational issues that have squeezed the availability of upstream chlorine. Those issues also could slow a retreat in export pricing despite lower prices in Asia and other regions, sources said.