The Commerce Department today reported really good March home sales relative the the past 4 years of the housing depression. Media reports included only the seasonally adjusted annualized sales rate, which was 417,000 versus a consensus estimate of 415,000. PR flaks at the major financial infomercial outlets were breathless in their reports. Bloomberg proclaimed “A dearth of existing properties is encouraging builders to undertake new projects that will keep fueling the economy. Mortgage rates close to record lows, higher home values and rising household formation are helping lay the groundwork for increased buyer traffic in 2013.”
It’s mostly mindless bullshit as usual. The numbers were good relative only to the recent past, and with the tailwind of Benito Bernanke’s massive mortgage rate subsidy. Looking at the actual numbers from the Commerce Department surveys, not annualized and not seasonally adjusted, we get a better view of current reality.
New house sales rose by 7,000 units to 40,000 in March. This was better than last year’s March gain of 4,000 units to 34,000, and better than the March 2011 gain of 6,000 to 28,000. Sales are up 43% in two years. Wow.
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But let’s put this in perspective. It’s still below the 48,000 units that were sold in March 2008 in the middle of the housing market crash, the 120,000 units a month during the bubble years, and the 80,000 units per month typical before that.
New house sales normally peak in April, so there may yet be another peak ahead, but the NAHB builder survey indexes for March and April suggest that sales have already peak. Builders reported lower sales and traffic from mid March to mid April. This may be as good as it gets in this cycle.
Even with the Fed’s massive mortgage rate subsidy, sales have not surpassed 40,0o0 units per month. That’s half or less than half the peak levels reached from 1997 to 2007.
But builders are supplying enough houses to meet demand. The talk of inventory shortage is overblown. Demand is weak. New supply production is consistent with the level of demand.
The talk of inventory shortage is overblown. Supply production is consistent with the level of demand. The inventory of new homes relative to sales is below the bubble years, but at normal levels relative to those seen in 2003-2005.
Median reported new house sale prices have risen 20% since 2009. Effective sale prices may have risen even more than that as builders were giving large incentives, including extra amenities, or discounts not reflected in prices as late as last year. Effective sale prices at the 2009 lows were lower than reported prices. The discounts and incentives have ended or been reduced in many cases.
Meanwhile, the average sale price dropped back over the past year as the ratio of cheap to expensive houses sold rose.
The so called recovery is mostly a recovery in prices. Thanks to the Fed mortgage subsidy, we have housing inflation, but not much recovery in housing activity relative to historical norms. The market has bounced back to around 50% of historically normal levels only with the help of the massive Fed subsidy. We have to wonder where the market would be without that, or rather what will happen when that subsidy is withdrawn. Knowing that removing this subsidy could devastate the so called housing recovery, it seems unlikely that the Fed would only do so under extreme pressure from the market in the form of consumer price inflation. The government has managed to keep those numbers suppressed.
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