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Monday, December 06, 2010

Residential Investment and Unemployment

by Calculated Risk on 12/06/2010 01:10:00 PM

One of the key reasons for the sluggish recovery has been the ongoing problems in housing. Usually residential investment (RI) is a major contributor to GDP growth in the early stages of a recovery, but not this time because of the huge overhang of existing vacant homes.

Note: Residential investment (RI) includes new single family structures, multifamily structures, home improvement, broker's commissions, and a few minor categories.

Residential Investment Percent of GDP Click on graph for larger image in graphics gallery.

This graph shows RI and investment in single family structures as a percent of GDP. Usually RI rebounds strongly at the beginning of a recovery, but this time RI has continued to decline.

RI as a percent of GDP is at a post WWII low of 2.22%, and investment in single family structures is near the all time low.

Some people have asked how a sector that only accounts for 2.2% of GDP be so important? The answer is that usually RI accounts for a large percentage of the employment and GDP growth in the first year or so of a recovery. We can see this by looking at housing starts and the unemployment rate.

Housing Starts and Unemployment Rate This graph shows single family housing starts (through October) and the unemployment rate (inverted) through November. Note: Of course there are many other factors too, but housing is a key sector.

You can see both the correlation and the lag. The lag is usually about 12 to 18 months, with peak correlation at a lag of 16 months for single unit starts. The 2001 recession was a business investment led recession, and the pattern didn't hold.

Housing starts (blue) rebounded a little last year,and then moved sideways for some time, before declining again in May.

This is what I expected when I first posted the above graph in August 2009. I wrote:

[T]here is still far too much existing home inventory, a sharp bounce back in housing starts is unlikely, so I think ... a rapid decline in unemployment is also unlikely.
I'm now looking at a 2011 forecast for housing, and the good news is RI should increase modestly next year. It will not be a vigorous recovery, but I do expect RI to make a positive contribution to GDP - and that is an improvement, and is one of the reasons I think real GDP growth in 2011 will be 3%+. Not great, but an improvement over 2010.