KEY DATA: Sales: -3.4%; 1-Family: -3.7%; Condos: -1.6%; Prices (Year-over-Year): +5.8%; Inventories: -2.3%
IN A NUTSHELL: “Home sales have been bouncing around and one of the reasons may be the lack of homes on the market.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The existing housing market is a key segment of the economy in no small part because a purchase usually triggers additional purchases of a variety of residence-related goods. To get back to strong economic growth, housing demand needs to be solid. Existing home sales have been rising this year, but in fits and starts. After hitting the highest pace in eight years in July, the level has flattened out. Still, we are looking at a 2015 sales pace that should be the highest since 2006. The National Association of Realtors reported that demand declined in October. There was a sharp reduction in sales in the West, a more modest one in the South and very little or none in the Midwest and Northeast. Purchases of single-family units fell more rapidly than condos. As for prices, they continue to rise solidly in most regions except for the Northeast. The price data are not seasonally adjusted so you have to compare to the same month in previous years. Doing that, the October price level was the second highest October on record, exceeded only in October 2005, the peak in housing prices during the bubble. That pretty much indicates that at least on the price side, conditions are normalizing. One issue, though, continues to overhang the market. The supply of homes on the market is relatively low. That lack of choice may be keeping sales down
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: The housing market is in decent shape but could be a lot better is people decided they were ready to move and listed their homes. But the real issue for housing is what will happen when rates start to rise. It looks like December is when the Fed will start increasing rates and variable mortgage rates should follow. Assuming the markets believe the FOMC that inflation will trend back to 2% in the medium term, longer-term rates could rise as well. As I have argued previously, I think that at least initially, sales should rise. Buyers will have to start factoring into their purchase calculus the simple fact that mortgage costs could be increasing. That should cause some to make decisions that they were able to put off when rates were stable. Realtors have reported that there are lots of “lookers” and fewer “buyers”. That should change when mortgage rates start rising. But one of the long-term costs of the extended low rate environment is that many homeowners have refinanced into very low mortgage rates. Are they going to be willing to move and trade those low rate mortgages for higher rate mortgages? To the extent that low inventories are a problem for the market and that the churn needs to return before sales reach trend levels, the extensive amount of refinancing into historically low mortgage rates may slow the market’s return to normal.