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Monday, November 23, 2009

Existing Home Sales: Distressing Gap

by Calculated Risk on 11/23/2009 01:45:00 PM

After the expected spike in existing home sales last month, I quoted legendary basketball coach John Wooden:

"Never mistake activity for achievement."
It is worth repeating this month.

First, it is important to remember that existing home sales are largely irrelevant for the economy. What matters for the economy are new home sales, housing starts and residential investment. And there has been little improvement in these key indicators.

This really shows up on the following graph:

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

This graph shows existing home sales (left axis) through October, and new home sales (right axis) through September.

The initial gap was caused by the flood of distressed sales. This kept existing home sales elevated, and depressed new home sales since builders couldn't compete with the low prices of all the foreclosed properties.

The recent spike in existing home sales was due primarily to the first time homebuyer tax credit.

But what matters for the economy - and jobs - is new home sales, and new home sales are still very low because of huge overhang of existing home inventory and rental properties.

Second, normally a decline in inventory and the months-of-supply would be considered a positive for the existing home market, however much of the apparent recent improvement in months-of-supply is related to the artificial - and likely short lived - boost in activity.

Existing Home Inventory It is not all bad news. The second graph shows the year-over-year change in existing home inventory.

This inventory has been declining for some time, and is off almost 15% compared to last year. However the level of inventory is still high, and much of the recent inventory "improvement" has come at the expense of vacant rental units; the rental vacancy rate is now at a record 11.1%.

The key to reducing the overall inventory is new household formation, and the key to new household formation is jobs. Encouraging renters to become owners accomplishes nothing in reducing the overall housing inventory, and leads some analysts to mistake activity for achievement.