Thursday, January 24, 2013

Friday: New Home Sales

by Bill McBride on 1/24/2013 08:47:00 PM

First, from Michelle Meyer at Merrill Lynch: Tale of the missing homes

One of the key developments for the housing market in 2012 was a significant decline in inventory. The number of existing homes on the market for sale plunged 22% from the end of 2011, reaching the lowest level since January 2001. At the current sales pace, it now only takes 4.4 months to clear the stock of homes for sale. This is the slowest pace since the heart of the housing bubble in mid-2005. The reduction in supply has underpinned home prices and created a need for construction yet again.

The decline in supply can be explained by a few factors. Most significantly, the sharp decline in homebuilding translated to minimal growth in the housing stock. From 2009 to 2011, housing starts only slightly exceeded the pace of demolitions. The sluggish pace of new construction, of course, has a more direct impact on new inventory than it does on existing supply. Nonetheless, over time, it means fewer homes available for sale and hence slower turnover.

The latter – the decline in turnover – is the main reason for lean inventory of existing properties. This is a function of 1) falling home prices, which discouraged sellers; 2) tight credit, which reduced the number of move-up buyers; 3) negative equity that led to lock-in. As home prices increase and credit standards ease, some of this "pent-up" inventory will be unleashed. That said, if it is truly turnover – which means selling a property to buy a different one – it will also result in a gain in home sales. Months supply can therefore remain low.

Another source of inventory is from distressed properties – both current and previous. There is still a large pipeline of mortgages in foreclosure or seriously delinquent that needs to be processed. We think this will be gradual given the delays from states with a judicial foreclosure process. We can also see inventory from previously delinquent mortgages that had been purchased by investors. Many institutional investors bought distressed properties in bulk with the intention of renting them for a few years until prices appreciated. As prices rise, investors will look to take capital gains.

We advise some caution when interpreting the inventory data as there are big seasonal swings. Inventory typically falls at the end of the year and picks up again in Q1 in anticipation of the spring selling season. Extracting the seasonal factors from inventory shows that the biggest adjustments occur in December, when inventory is low, and August when inventory is high. We therefore expect a gain in inventory over Q1. This may very well be matched with a modest gain in sales in the spring, therefore making it a temporary rise in inventory.
CR note: Watching inventory - while not much more exciting than watching grass grow - will be key this year. My guess is inventory has bottomed, but even if there are further declines, the year-over-year declines will be much less in 2013 than in 2012.

Friday economic releases:
• At 10:00 AM ET, New Home Sales for December from the Census Bureau. The consensus is for an increase in sales to 388 thousand Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR) in December. This will put annual sales at around 367,000, an increase of around 20% from 2011.

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