KEY DATA: Sales: +1.1%; Over-Year: -1.2%; Prices (Over-Year): +5.8%; Inventory: 3.6 months/ CFNAI: -0.88 point
IN A NUTSHELL: “Given the paucity of houses on the market, home sales are doing about as well as can be expected.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Sometimes sellers are in the driver’s seat and sometimes buyers have the upper hand. Right now, sellers are the kings in the housing market. The National Association of Realtors reported that new home sales rose in March, but minimally. Weather suppressed closings in February in the Northeast and Midwest, but that turned around in March. Still, the level of sales remains restrained and compared to March 2017 was either down or up modestly. The problem remains the lack of homes for sale. Adjusting for the sales rate, there are only 3.6 months of supply. Though that is up a little from what we have seen over the past few months, it is about two years less than desirable. The lack of available homes is not only limiting sales but it is also leading to continued high price increases.
The Chicago Fed’s National Activity Index tanked in March, indicating that economic growth slowed during the month. This moderation in activity is consistent with a variety of other indicators and is pointing to a GDP growth rate for the first quarter that may be quite disappointing.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The housing market is in decent shape, but it is not in great shape. It is hard to sell homes that are not on the market and there just are not a lot of people willing to let go. That is a real concern since solid demand and low supply leads to higher prices. Yes, higher prices should induce people to list their homes, but the decision to sell is a lot more complicated than just one of price. You then have to move and that means finding another home to buy or finding a rental unit. And that process is difficult if there are not a lot of options available. On top of that, longer-term rates are rising. The 10-year Treasury note is nearing 3% and mortgage rates are following suit. So, we having rising prices and rising mortgage rates, a combination that creates real concern for realtors. In addition, the expected surge in economic growth that was (and still is) expected from the tax cuts has not yet shown up. Estimates for the first quarter are coming down and are approaching 2%. I am a bit more optimistic, but a little shaky about my 2.6% number. The first estimate of first quarter growth comes out on Friday. For investors, the latest economic reports can only create confusion. In general, earnings have been good, but you have to ask what is real and what is tax-created. And if GDP is lower than expected and inflation higher, the markets may not take the news very well. But that is just an economist talking. At the least, we are likely in for more wild days ahead.