Wednesday, February 19, 2014

US Builders; Anything But Confident

Like when discovering that Santa doesn't really bring toys to children around the world, economists everywhere fell off their chairs after receiving Builder Confidence Data this morning.
illustration of a small home
Negative NAHB Builder Sentiment
Today, the National Association of Home Builders' Housing Market Index shocked the world of academia by revealing a negative confidence level among US builders. Considering that any number below 50 is bad news, last month's 56 was pretty OK; especially now that we convinced ourselves that mediocrity is the new recovery normal. Experts anticipated a number between 54 and 58. Now imagine their surprise when the news of an silly 46 hit the wire.
Naturally, the immediate reaction was to blame the weather. And why not? Everybody is blaming the weather.
aerial photo of the hoover dam
US builders aren't sissies
But if I know something about builder greed is that it is stronger than the weather. Think of all the great construction feats that took place in this country over the last couple of centuries. From trains to bridges, builders are anything but sissies.
Does this mean that something else may be at fault? Well, how about Greed's balancing partner: Fear?
Back on May of last year, I covered the real estate market in an article called Robust Real Estate Hides Truth. There, I described the fundamental issues challenging the industry. But lets bring everybody up to date on those issues.
Last year, homes were being sold too cheaply for builders to want to compete. This is because, after inflation, it was more expensive to build a house than to buy one built ten years ago. This is especially true when investors where the main market buyers. Remember that investors buy wholesale. The retail consumer had no chance to compete because homes were being appraised about 15% below the asking price while bids were being made 10% above ask. This meant that only buyers with a 20% to 30% of extra cash at hand could play the bidding game.
logo in black background of FHA logo with "Your door to homeownership" legend
FHA buyers were out of luck last year
Then consider the fact that this was an environment where the banking system failed to fully come back as a source of real estate loans. Even today, builders are complaining about the difficulty to get their projects funded. Just think of little home buyers. Now completely forget about FHA buyers. Low appraisals take most of them totally out of the market. I am sure that you heard stories about people spending up to a year trying to buy a house. These poor souls were being outbid by pro's.
Most homes were being sold to investment managers like BlackRock, rather than families. The interesting part is that this was no secret. Recently, BlackRock unveiled bonds made up from billions of dollars of securitized trounces of homes bought specifically to be rented. It should be clear that any home price increases were due to the vicious fight for inventory being waged between various investment managers.
Now put yourself in the shoes of builders. Imagine a market where capital is either too expensive or impossible to get. Add the fact that market prices for the goods you make are much lower than your cost to manufacture them. Then, consider that your main customer has yet to find reliable loan sources. Finally, think of the fact that the next generation of potential home buyers prefers to live at home with their parents.
All things being considered, there is simply no reason why builders should be upbeat.
Thankfully, they have enough sense as to not blame the weather. But the same can't be said about economists who insist that the weather is behind the malaise we are now seeing across the economy. From government to academia, naive optimism about a recovering real estate market abounded despite the evidence.
photo of three large snow plowers clearing a highway after heavy snow
Don't blame the weather
In Robust Real Estate Hides Truth I described how the so called recovery lacked fundamental strength. The fact that a part-timer like myself can analyse the same data as the pro's and come to diverging conclusions isn't surprising. What's incredible is when the pro's see their models crashing back to earth after such a short time.
This is why I have a hard time thinking of economics as a science. Pseudo-scientists like economists are great at curve-fitting until they see what they want from charts. Real scientists would be glad to be surprised by the evidence rather than by the failure of their fully developed models.
Illustration of "Fear to Greed" gauge showing that fear is stronger
Fear is stronger in this market
In a nutshell, this morning's news should have surprised no one. The home market is out of inventory and those who make the widgets have no incentive to make any more. These are the distortions typical when ineptitude is rampant among those who control the economic levers. So far, housing and employment have demonstrated the degree of market distortion and dysfunction that is our present reality. This despite a clueless president who continues to brag about his brand of recovery.
For now, keep walking people. There are no new news here!

2014/02/19 9:06 AM Update
Housing Starts and New Housing Permits data collapse in January. 
From an expected 975,000 in New Housing Permits, the final number came in at a meager 937,000 for a 5.4% in month-to-month decline. 
New Home Starts did worse. From the anticipated 950,000, the real number dropped by 16% when compared to last month to 880,000.
Despite the now normal tendency to blame the weather, the West may tell a different story. The West fell by 26% in a Permits month-over-month comparison and by 17.4% in month-to-month New Home Starts. The West is the second largest component in the survey and was not affected by the weather. 
Whether this is a fluke or a fundamental indicator of a weak economy, time will tell. To me, this has an eerie resemblance to April, 2006. Despite clear fundamental flaws, the data had just begun to show housing weakness. Back then, it took two years for everyone to finally admit we had a problem. 
In 2006, the problem was irrational exuberance; too much of a good time. Today, the issue is incompetent malaise driven by a White House leadership that insists in maltreating capital and business; thus creating a level of uncertainty that can't be lifted by all the money pumping at the Fed and through the Japanese carry-trade industry.

1 comment:

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