Saturday, February 27, 2010

Housing's Continued Weakness (Existing Home Sales)

Earlier this week the Commerce Department reported a 7.2 percent decline in existing home sales. No surprise to anyone, this reflects continued evidence that high unemployment and tight lending standards are undercutting the government's attempts to prop up the market.

I would like to make a few points regarding the existing lending standards. First, we need to keep in mind that the government is currently buying roughly 93% of all residential mortgage activity in the US via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Without a robust capital markets outlet for mortgage backed securities, politics get to determine who obtains a home and who does not. Given the financial crisis of the last three years and the added negative press surrounding mortgages in general it's not surprising to see credit requirements sitting at their highest points in 15 years. While housing is not the largest employment industries in our nation, it does serve several critical needs of our country and must play a participatory role in our nations recovery. Out of reach lending standards is not going to help matters.

So back to Friday's report. Since the for forecast was so much worse than forecast and suggest the housing recovery will sputter without government support. The government has spent billions to keep mortgage rates low and give buyers tax breaks, but both programs are set to end this spring.

The National Association of Realtors said that home sales fell 7.2 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.05 million from a downwardly revised pace of 5.44 million in December. Economists expected a slight increase to a rate of 5.5 million.

Home sales have been sluggish this winter even though the deadline for a tax credit for first-time buyers was extended. It had been set to expire on Nov. 30. That caused sales to surge last fall. Then Congress extended the deadline until April 30 and expanded it to existing homeowners who move.

The housing report was another sign that consumers still aren't feeling comfortable making sizable purchases. With jobs still scarce, weak consumer spending is a key reason why economic growth is expected to be feeble this year.

Home sales are still up nearly 12 percent from the bottom, but are down 30 percent from their peak more than four years ago.

Last month, sales declined throughout the country, falling the most — nearly 11 percent — in the Northeast. Sales fell by about 7 percent in the South and Midwest and by more than 5 percent in the West.

Nationally, more than a quarter of buyers last month paid all cash, reflecting a surge of investors buying low-priced foreclosures, the Realtors group said.

Nationwide, the median sales price was $164,700, unchanged from a year earlier and down about 3 percent from December. The inventory of unsold homes on the market was down slightly. There is a 7.8 month supply at the current sales pace, up from a recent low of 6.5 months in November.

The bleak report comes after the government reported Wednesday that sales of newly built homes plunged 11 percent to a record low in January. The report, which measures signed contracts to buy homes rather than completed sales, also came as a surprise to economists.

Another question hanging over the housing market this year is whether interest rates will rise, and by how much. The Federal Reserves $1.25 trillion program to push down mortgage rates is scheduled to expire on March 31. This is a MAJOR concern for us here at Efinity. The affordability of homes right now is critical to this nation's recovery.