“The latest University of Michigan consumer confidence report noted that its index tracking those who think it’s a good time to buy a home has fallen by a hefty eight points in the past two months even as mortgage rates have dropped.” – Danielle DiMartino Booth, “The Fed Can’t Help Housing Or Autos At This Point”
I’m not the only analyst who has concluded that lower rates likely will not re-stimulate housing market activity. As I’ve argued in my Short Seller’s Journal, the “pool” of potential homebuyers who can qualify for a mortgage has greatly diminished. In fact, mortgage delinquencies are rising because many who stretched to buy a home in the past several years are struggling with the all-in cost of home ownership. Stagnant wages and the rising cost of necessities are largely the culprits.
“Despite lower mortgage rates, home prices remain somewhat high relative to incomes, which is particularly challenging for entry-level buyers.” – NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. That quote accompanied the NAHB’s release of its Housing Market Index, which used to be called the Homebuilder Sentiment Index because it’s a “how do you feel?” survey.
The Housing Market index fell to an index level of 64 in June from 66 in May. Wall St’s finest were looking for a consensus 67. All three sub-indices declined: current sales conditions, buyer traffic and expectations for the next six months. Buyer traffic has been below 50 for two months in a row. This is despite more than a 1% decline in the average rate on a 30-year fixed rate mortgage during the last 7 months.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how homebuilders “feel” about the sales environment now or in six months, declining foot traffic translates into decline sales volume. The quote above reinforces my theory that the “pool” of potential homebuyers, especially first-time buyers, who can qualify for a mortgage and afford the monthly cost of home ownership is drying up. Lower interest expense somewhat offsets high prices relative to income. However, the general cost of home ownership other than debt service is rising beyond the spending budgets of many potential home owners.
Quant-oriented perma-bulls, like Josh Steiner at Hedge Eye, understand the extent to which easy credit has fueled the housing market since 2010. You can’t necessarily call it a “housing bull market” because the until sales level is not even remotely close to the previous peak in 2005. New single family home sales peaked at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 1.39 million in July 2005. The current SAAR is 673,000.
Furthermore, the Government “pulled forward” future demand when it began to lower the bar to qualify for a FNM/FRE mortgage. The demand pool Steiner probably imagines is out there for starter homes has mostly already bought OR can’t qualify. This is why that huge drop in the 10yr has not stimulated housing sales.
The rate on a 30yr fixed mortgage has dropped over 100 basis points since November, yet housing sales have been declining. It would be interesting to know to what extent home sales would have have declined over the last few months if rates had not fallen over 1% in 7 months. Just look at the big gap down in mortgage purchase applications reported this week despite a 10yr yield that has fallen relentlessly.
It doesn’t really matter what the Fed does today with the Fed Funds rate policy decision. To be sure, if the FOMC postures toward take rates to zero if necessary it might juice the stock market temporarily. But it won’t take long for brains to take over from the algos and interpret the message that would be transmitted by the FOMC as extraordinarily bearish.
Any attempt at holding off the economic catastrophe creeping into view would require massive money printing. But given that some FOMC members consider a $3 trillion balance sheet to be “normalized,” I’m not sure at the margin to what degree more money printing will save the economy. Perhaps a Debt Jubilee for all households…
The above commentary includes excerpts from my Short Seller’s Journal, a weekly newsletter ideas for those looking to short stocks – including options strategies – based on fundamental analysis. You can learn more or subscribe using this link: Short Seller’s Journal information.