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March 31, 2015

The Un-Recovery of U.S. Housing Market

When I moved to Sarasota, Fla., in 1999, I was invited by a prominent local to an “un-wedding wedding” to make new friends in town. I accepted the invitation and, not wanting to display my ignorance, avoided asking the burning question: “What’s an un-wedding wedding?”
Inevitably, I found out what an un-wedding wedding is. It’s a full-blown wedding, only the host isn’t actually getting married. He or she wants to get married but isn’t – and goes through the motions anyway.
This manipulation of celebratory events to fabricate optimism about a desired future reminds me of the state of housing in the United States today.
Here’s why…
The Un-Recovery
There’s no reason to celebrate anything in the housing market’s un-recovery recovery.
Past and present manipulations must be continued to prevent collapse, but they won’t help economic growth in the United States as they did until 2000. Instead, those manipulations only act as a headwind from time to time.
Take February housing “starts.” They were down 17% from January. The annualized single-family starts number for February was 593,000 units, which was essentially flat from the year-ago February 2014 starts number of 589,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Start of construction occurs when excavation begins for the footings or foundation of a building.”
In a recent column, David Stockman, the head of the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan administration, says the slow starts aren’t due to the weather – although February 2014 and 2015 were especially cold months in the East – but about swings in interest rates.
“The seasonal adjustments are supposed to factor in weather,” Stockman writes. But the raw unadjusted, non-annualized starts number for February 2015 was 40,700. In February 2014, it was 40,600. In 2009, it was 25,000. In 2005, starts were 124,000, and in 2000, they were 88,000 units.
He makes the case that Federal Reserve manipulation of interest rates, not weather, caused these wild fluctuations.
“In short, in the name of improving upon the alleged instability of the private economy – absent the Fed’s expert ministrations – the geniuses in the [Fed] have actually caused the rate of housing starts to gyrate wildly,” Stockman writes.
Stockman goes on to say that the U.S. economy isn’t analogous to a giant bathtub, as Keynesians might suggest. That’s because, he writes, pouring “‘demand’ into the housing market through what amounts to cheap, subsidized interest rates (from the hides of savers) and, presto, activity rates will soar.”
That hasn’t happened.
Free Market Suppression
New home sales in February rose 7.8%, to a seasonally adjusted 539,000 units. That’s the best number for new home sales in seven years.
Still, according to a graph on the National Association of Home Builders‘ website, new single-family home sales going back to 1978 show that current levels of sales are barely approaching 1980 levels. They are more than 50% below average sales from 1980 to 2006.
While new home sales, which make up one-tenth of home sales, on the surface looked robust in February, existing home sales rose a scant 1.2% according to the National Association of Realtors.
That’s what I call an un-recovery recovery, or a bum wedding.
Free-market capitalism wedded to democracy yields a living, changing economic system that thrives on creative destruction and withers under socialist-style command and control. The Federal Reserve’s interest-rate manipulations over the past 20 years only prove they are incapable of fostering natural growth in the economy.
The Fed never should have been allowed to manipulate rates so low for so long to inflate the housing bubble in the first place. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had to be bailed out, but by now should have been dismantled. They’re backing more mortgages now than ever before.
While two governments and the Fed couldn’t let the financial system implode and too-big-to-fail insolvent banks eat their own poison, everybody should have by now worked together to have broken up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac once they were back on their feet.
What people forget is the Fed and the government helped bail out builders after the crash.
In a May 6, 2010, Reuters article, Helen Chernikoff quoted Moody’s Economy.com Chief Economist Mark Zandi saying, “Without the government’s support, in all likelihood we would have seen more failures among the builders. It’s almost hard to list all the things that have been done to support homebuilding either directly or indirectly.”
Then the Fed, with a wink and a nod from successive government administrations went on a $2 trillion Treasury bond-buying binge to start up its zero interest-rate policy (ZIRP).
And to prove no matter how much money it throws at housing it is hapless, the Fed bought $1.8 trillion of mortgage-backed securities to narrow the mortgage-backed security (MBS)-over-Treasury bond spread to try and make more mortgage money available.
That didn’t work.
The Takeaway
Without a so-called “clearing mechanism” that balances home sales and rental rates based on supply and demand against free-market interest rates reflecting real-world risk and returns in the $16.8 trillion U.S. economy, not only won’t the housing market ever fully recover, but the economy won’t either.
Like an un-wedding wedding, the housing market’s un-recovery recovery is a sad state of affairs.

Courtesy Shah Gilani at Wall Street Insights & Indictments (EconMatters author archive here)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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