Eye on the Economy: Housing Slowdown Has Distance to Run
An extended period of above-trend economic growth, along with associated shrinkage of slack in U.S. labor markets, has generated growing concern on the inflation front.
The Fed is increasingly worried about upward pressures on “core” inflation (excluding prices of food and energy) from tightening labor markets as well as from soaring energy prices that inevitably have been making their way into the core through business cost structures.
Core inflation readings for the first quarter of 2006 were reasonably well contained, at least on a year-over-year basis, although various measures definitely firmed up on a quarter-to-quarter basis. Furthermore, available data for April and May show further acceleration.
The core Consumer Price Index (CPI) definitely is on an upward path, showing year-over-year increases of 2.3% and 2.4% in April and May, respectively ― not far below our estimate of the upper bound of the Fed’s tolerance zone for this inflation measure (2.5%).
The technically superior chain-core CPI (allowing for substitution among goods and services in the market basket) also has been accelerating in recent months, posting a year-over-year gain of 2.2% in May.
A Weakening Housing Market Is Generating ‘Inflationary’ Pressures
Sizeable portions of the recent increases in core consumer price inflation represent large increases in the housing components of these inflation measures. The housing components, in turn, have been driven primarily by government imputations for “owners’ equivalent rent of primary residences.” This component accounts for 30% of the core CPI — it registered a 3.3% year-over-year gain in May ― and the annualized monthly gain was nearly 8%.
The surge in owners’ equivalent rent reflects rising rental rates that are not actually borne by the nation’s home owners, and a good case can be made to exclude this imputed component from the analysis of inflation trends.
Indeed, the upshift in rental rates is associated with the systematic weakening of single-family and condo markets that is being provoked by Federal Reserve rate hikes. That makes tighter monetary policy inflationary, a perverse effect that should be discounted by the Fed.
Recent Housing Data Are a Mixed Bag
The Federal Reserve fully expects the housing market to cool down this year, partly in response to the series of rate increases it has implemented. Public statements by Fed officials characterize the evolving housing slowdown as “moderate” and “orderly” — a pattern consistent with NAHB’s baseline (most probable) forecast.
NAHB has been warning the Fed about large downsize risks to our respective baseline forecasts for housing. These risks are associated largely with major uncertainties regarding the behavior of investors/speculators that were such a major factor on the demand sides of single-family and condo markets in 2004-2005.
NAHB’s surveys of builders show deepening problems in the single-family market through June, including cancellations and resales by investors/speculators.
Ongoing erosion in single-family and condo markets also is shown by sales/price data for the existing-home market (from the National Association of Realtors®), and the weekly series on applications for mortgages to buy homes (from the Mortgage Bankers Association) still is rattling downward. We’re also seeing a distinct downslide in issuance of single-family building permits (data through May).
Conflicting (positive) signals are coming from the May data reported by the Commerce Department for both single-family housing starts and sales of new homes. The starts numbers were up by 2.1% in May and new-home sales were up by 4.6% — in the face of reports from public builders and NAHB’s surveys showing ongoing erosion of housing demand.
Fundamentals Still Point to a Cooling Housing Market
The conflicts in housing data apparently reflect, to a large measure, deficiencies in the government’s data collection procedures (particularly for new-home sales). It’s also clear, however, that a fair number of single-family starts recently have reflected building against permits backlogged earlier, and we also know that builders have been strengthening both price and non-price incentives to bolster new sales and limit cancellations of sales contracts signed earlier.
Everything considered, it’s fair to say that single-family and condo markets still are cooling down in fundamental ways and that the housing slowdown still has some distance to run.
NAHB’s forecast continues to show an 8% decline in total housing starts for 2006 as a whole, with relatively large reversals in the single-family and condo markets along with further firming-up of rental markets.
NAHB Chief Economist David Seiders analyzes the economy from the point of view of the housing market every other week in the free e-newsletter, “Eye on the Economy.” The preceding is a reissue of his June 28 edition. To subcribe to “Eye on the Economy,” click here.
Want to Know the Housing Starts Through 2014?
Find out in HousingEconomics.com’s Long-Term Forecast. HousingEconomics.com includes downloadable Excel tables featuring the housing starts forecast, GDP, demographics and more.
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Latest on the NAHB Economics Blog: 'Builders Have Not Lost Touch With Demand'
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