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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

New and Existing Home Sales: The "Distressing" Gap

by Calculated Risk on 2/25/2009 01:10:00 PM

Real Time Economics at the WSJ excerpts some analyst comments about the existing home sales report: Economists React: ‘So Much for Signs of Stability’ in Housing. A few comments from analysts:

"So much for signs of stability."

"The drop back in the number of existing U.S. home sales in January dashes hopes that housing activity had found a floor."

"Overall, the longer housing activity remains in the doldrums, the less likely it is that the economy will see a decent recovery in 2010 as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke hopes."

"The rate of decline in existing home sales over the last three months suggests that the market has not yet entered a bottoming phase and housing remains under considerable pressure."
I wouldn't look at existing home sales for signs of stability.

A large percentage of existing home sales (45% according to the NAR) are distressed sales: REO sales (foreclosure resales) or short sales. This has created a gap between new and existing sales as shown in the following graph that I've jokingly labeled the "Distressing" gap.

Distressing Gap Click on graph for larger image in new window.

This graph shows existing home sales (left axis through January) and new home sales (right axis through December).

Update (Feb 26, 2009): The graph is updated through January now (and right axis label corrected).

For a number of years the ratio between new and existing home sales was pretty steady. After activity in the housing market peaked in 2005, the ratio changed. This change was caused by distressed sales - in many areas home builders cannot compete with REO sales, and this has pushed down new home sales while keeping existing home sales activity elevated.

If we are looking for the first "signs of stability" in the housing market, I think we should look for declining inventory, a bottom in new home sales, and the gap between new and existing home sales closing.

Note: Existing home inventory might be declining, see the 5th graph here. However this might be misleading (see caveats in post).