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Eye on the Economy: New Home Sales Bounce Back in January

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new_home_sale_keysThe housing market and the broader economy shivered at the end of 2013 as weather-related factors held consumers back and generated production delays. These impacts should prove temporary and our forecast remains positive for housing and home building for the year to come. Indeed, reports from January suggest some improvement over disappointing December data.

New home sales in January, as estimated by the Census Bureau and HUD, were up 9.6 percent over the December pace, coming in at 468,000 seasonally adjusted annualized rate. This pace is 2.2 percent higher than the January 2013 measure. The month-supply measure of inventory fell to 4.7, with the count of new homes for sales standing at 184,000. Only 45,000 of those were completed, ready-to-occupy new homes.

The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a measure of existing home sales that is determined on a contract basis similar to new home sales, was up marginally in January (0.1 percent) after a 5.8 percent decline in December. Despite the January reading, the pace of existing home sales has slowed significantly, with the most recent PHSI down 9 percent year-over-year. The NAR measure for existing home sales was down 5.1 percent in January and was 5.1 percent lower compared to a year prior.

The combination of weaker starts and sales was due to some weather delays but also reflects some slackening of housing demand at the start of 2014. Nonetheless, the overall pace of residential construction remains positive. According to the Census, private residential construction spending – measured on a put-in-place basis – was up 1.1 percent from December and 14.6 percent from one year ago. The January reading marked the third consecutive month of increase.

The improvements in housing over the last two years are also apparent in the balance sheets of home builders. According to NAHB industry surveys, average builder net profit margins (4.9 percent) in 2012 were higher than prior readings in 2010 (0.5 percent) and 2008 (-3 percent) but still lower than 2006 (7.7 percent).

Current sector headwinds include continued tight credit access for building. NAHB survey data indicates tight but improving acquisition, development and construction (AD&C) loan conditions. FDIC data reveal multiple quarters of expansion of the outstanding stock of AD&C loans, but a lending gap persists between the demand for building and available credit.

Rising building material prices represent another challenge for builders. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Producer Price Index showed a significant increase from December to January in gypsum prices (7.4 percent). Softwood lumber prices moved up modestly in January after softening at the end of 2013. OSB prices firmed slightly after steep declines from early 2013 peaks.

Despite some declines in housing affordability due to rising interest rates, conditions remain positive. According to the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index, 64.7 percent of new and existing homes sold between the beginning of October and the end of December of 2013 were affordable to families earning the U.S. median income of $64,400. This is virtually the same as the 64.5 percent of homes sold that were affordable to median-income earners in the third quarter.

Multifamily developers experienced a pullback in market sentiment at the end of 2013. The NAHB Multifamily Production Index (MPI) showed a slight weakening as the index declined four points to 50 in the fourth quarter of 2013. It is, however, the eighth consecutive reading of 50 or above. The index and all its components are scaled so that a number of 50 indicates that the same number of respondents report conditions are improving as report conditions are getting worse.

This quarter’s MPI results are in line with NAHB’s forecast of increased apartment production in 2014 but at a slower pace than last year. The results are also in line with recent downturns in other economic indicators, due to unusually severe weather in parts of the country that disrupted supply chains and affected confidence in several sectors of the economy.

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