The housing market and house prices are the economy’s gift to journalists. For one thing, almost everybody either owns a house, is looking to buy one, or to sell one – and all want to know whether prices are going up, down, or sideways, whether buyers are in the saddle and ride sellers, or vice versa. The endless cocktail party chatter includes such serious stuff as whether higher interest rates will slow down sales (yes, other things being equal, which they never are), and such inane stuff as a seller, who bought a house for $400,000, one year later put it on the market for $500,000 before accepting an offer of $480,000, complaining about his $20,000 loss.
Right now in America forecasters are more than ever focused on the housing market, hoping it will boost a recovery that seems to be on pause or, if pessimists are to be believed, about to reverse. This flaccid recovery, the least vigorous since WWII, specializes in false dawns, as millions of job seekers well know, and as retailers were reminded in January and February. Which makes the housing market more important than ever. It can create or kill jobs in construction and in the production of appliances and furniture. And rising house prices drive up wealth and confidence, key drivers of the hoped-for resumption of growth in the 3+ percent range. It is not quite the case that as housing goes so goes the economy, but a robust recovery is unlikely without a growing housing sector.
All signs point up, unless they point down. Prices in December rose at their fastest rate since May, and two much-watched indexes recorded fourth-quarter increases of 7.7 percent (Federal Housing Finance Agency) and 11.3 percent (Standard & Poor/Case Shiller) compared with last year. Both are eight-year highs. Equally cheering, new home sales in January surprised forecasters who were expecting a fall-off; they jumped 9.6 percent. And bank lending for land development and construction is rising from 2013’s 14-year low. “A welcome departure from recent downside surprises,” according to economists at Goldman Sachs. All of which has prompted economists at the National Association of Home Builders to predict that single-family home starts this year will increase by 33 percent.
Builders’ joy is not unconfined. Most do not believe that the red-hot sales and price performance of the recent past will be repeated this year. Some developers are selling land to lock in their profits from shrewd purchases in depressed times, in anticipation of a switch from a sellers’ to a buyers’ market. Brad Stiehl, an estate agent with the Realty One Group, tells me that “buyers are not feeling the pressure to make an immediate offer lest they get out-competed for a property, as was the case a few months ago.” He adds that buy-to-let-to-flip investors who only recently snapped up lower-priced houses have retired to the side-lines, leaving that inventory to first-time buyers who find interest rates attractive even after the recent rise. At the middle and upper ends of the market, “neither buyer nor seller is in control; it’s a healthier, more normal market.” But one in which builders such as Toll Brothers are finding willing buyers for their more expensive models: in the quarter that ended in January, Toll-built homes netted 21 percent higher prices on average than they had in the same period a year earlier.
That might have changed in recent weeks. Higher interest rates seem to be causing a drop in new contracts. Glen Kelman, CEO at Redfin, a national brokerage, notes that a mortgage payment that came to $1,600 per month last year is now $2,000. Add to that the decline in affordability attendant on the rapid increase in prices last year, and you have reason for caution – a deceleration in price rises and a slowing of sales growth, or worse, an actual decline in sales and price.
Neither would be good news for the economy, already beset by a downward revision of fourth-quarter GDP, from 3.2 percent to 2.4 percent, and a January decline in industrial production, the first since last summer, and in the output of consumer durables such as cars and appliances. Although bad weather seems not to have markedly affected house sales, serial storms might account for some of the drop in industrial production. Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, told the Wall Street Journal there is “a growing list of economic [data] releases affected by the unusually bad weather.” But Anil Makhija director of one of Ohio State University’s research centers, has a different story, “It’s a copout to worry about the weather. ... There was underlying softness absent weather conditions.”
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) employees aren't necessarily better at investing in stocks than everyone else, but they are much better at getting out of bad investments before the "bad news" hits. That's according to a new paper by Shivaram Rajgopal and Roger M.
When economic forecasts prove wrong, it is customary to blame the weather. So cold that consumers stayed home, or so hot that consumers, well, stayed home. So cold that outdoor construction was unexpectedly low, unless of course unusually high temperatures made such work impossible lest heat stroke afflict the workers. In short, weather is the straw at which sinking forecasters often grasp.
Herewith some thoughts about the outlook for this year. Thoughts, not forecasts, for which I have neither the skill nor the courage. I offer these thoughts in deference to the understandable demand for look-aheads. Human beings are always hunting for certainty, attempting to reduce randomness, surrendering to what Harvard’s Walter Friedman in his new book (Fortune Tellers: The Story of America’s First Economic Forecasters) calls “the near universal compulsion to avoid ambiguity and doubt.” But there is more to the demand for forecasts than this desire for certainty. Businessmen and policymakers want to use forecasts to change the future, to adapt products to predictions of changes in consumer taste, to structure finances so as to take advantage of predicted changes in interest rates and thereby change earnings in the coming year, to obtain “the ability to alter the very thing that one predicts,” to borrow from Friedman. In short, it is often the goal of the purchaser of a forecast to act so as to prove his seer wrong, and then hire him the following year to repeat the process.
Monday will be an important day here in America. It is Labor Day, the day on which many of us say goodbye to summer – the last holiday from work until we carve our turkeys on Thanksgiving Day at the end of November. Barbeques will be fired up, beer kegs tapped, the all-too-short leases on beach homes will expire, stock exchanges will be shuttered, and thoughts turned to the new football season, especially in Washington and New York, where the end of the baseball season can’t come too soon.
Spare a bit of sympathy for the Federal Reserve Board’s monetary policy gurus. They have said they will begin to “taper” their purchases of bonds and mortgages when the unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent.
The weekly news on initial claims – up 16,000 to a two-month high of 360,000 – is one part of the economic picture and may be a short term glitch. Still, the overall employment picture is not reassuring. Such jobs as are available tend to be part time. Far too many people have simply dropped out of the work force and quit even looking for jobs.
Until recently it has been fashionable to denigrate the U.S. economic recovery: “America is the best house in a bad neighborhood,” sniffed many analysts. No longer. America is now a very good house in a terrible neighborhood.
This is the time that tries economists’ models. It has become the fashion at this time of year for forecasters to opine on the growth of GDP, the level of unemployment, the inflation rate next year—to at least one decimal place.