PREVIEW-US housing starts,building permits seen down in Feb

* WHAT: Commerce Department Feb housing starts, building
permits

* WHEN: Tuesday, March 16, 8:30 a.m. (1230 GMT)

REUTERS FORECAST:

* The median forecast for U.S. housing starts is for a drop
of about 3.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of
570,000 units in February from 591,000 units the previous
month. Forecasts from 73 economists ranged from a drop to
500,000 units to a rise to 600,000 units.

* The median forecast for U.S. building permits is for a
drop of about 1.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate
of 610,000 units in February from 622,000 units the previous
month. Forecasts from 51 economists ranged from a drop to
580,000 units to a rise to 640,000 units.

FACTORS TO WATCH

U.S. housing starts likely decreased in February, largely
due to harsh winter weather and lower demand. January, however,
had seen a stronger-than-expected rebound in January, which
brought activity to its highest level in six months.

New building permits, which give a sense of future home
construction, are also seen falling in response to slower new
homes sales.

A key gauge of home builder confidence will emerge Monday
afternoon when the National Association of Home Builders
releases its NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index.

A housing start is registered at the start of construction
of a new building intended primarily as a residence. The start
of construction is defined as the beginning of excavation of
the foundation.

Housing starts are subject to substantial volatility,
especially during the winter months. Most economists believe it
is useful to examine trends in construction activity for
single-family homes and multi-family units separately because
they can deviate significantly. Single-family home building is
larger and less volatile than multi-family construction.

The lowest mortgage rates in decades and high affordability
helped the hard-hit U.S. housing market find some footing in
2009 after a three-year slump. Recent data, however, points to
a sector that is still struggling.

Sales of newly built U.S. single-family homes plunged to a
record low in January, according to the Commerce Department.
And the National Association of Realtors reported a sharp
plunge in sales of previously owned homes in January.

The federal government’s $8,000 first-time home buyer tax
credit and a $6,500 credit for home owners buying a new
residence will soon expire. Eligible borrowers must sign
contracts by April 30 and close loans by June 30.

There is still a huge supply of unsold homes on the market
and millions of more foreclosures are in the pipeline.

MARKET IMPACT

Financial markets have already factored in a tepid recovery
for the U.S. housing market. Housing starts play a significant
role in the U.S. economy because consumer purchases of
household furnishings and appliances quickly follow.

Much weaker-than-expected housing starts data could send
Treasury prices higher and stocks lower, because it could
portend a weaker economic recovery. Significantly
stronger-than-expected data could cause the opposite reaction.

A strong housing market is bullish for the stock market
because the ripple effect of housing to consumer durable
purchases spurs corporate profits.

In particular, robust data on housing starts could send
home builder stocks higher.

Improvement in the housing market bodes well for the U.S.
economy, as it points to better demand in the sector where the
first signs of the latest recession took root.
Stock Market Today

(Editing by Leslie Adler)

PREVIEW-US housing starts,building permits seen down in Feb