Too many analysts and investors are wasting their time looking for the next investment bubble (such as Australian housing prices) when they continue to ignore the gathering second implosion in the American housing sector, both new and used.
No matter what anyone says about Australian housing prices bursting, China’s housing boom picking, Danish house prices collapsing or those in Canada slumping, the next big property crash is happening in America and all those “experts” at the Economist Intelligence Unit, various hedge funds, and myriad Australian “experts” seem to have missed it, again.
It is not a surprise that the US housing sector is deeply depressed. That’s accepted, as the US Federal Reserve again said earlier this month. But that depression is now deepening at a rate no one thought possible.
In fact, there seems to be an almost blasé acceptance of the downturn, and a belief that it won’t impact the rest of the economy. Well, in the way it did in 2007-09, which was from a very high level (prices and activity). This time it is different; the collapse has the potential to slowly smother America’s increasingly tenuous economic recovery over the rest of this year. It probably will because there are no policies in place or in sight that can reverse it.
The Fed’s latest bit of quantitative easing has failed to halt the slide, while helping banks and companies make hay with the cheap money flooding through the US economy.
Just take three stats for February, the latest snapshot of the industry malaise.
This week, new home sales were reported as slumping sharply in February (down 16.9% MoM or 89% at an annual rate) to a record low of 250,000 units (annualised rate).
(Australia’s current rate is about 150,000 and our economy is around 11 times smaller than the US economy).
Median new home price slid 13.9% in the month, following a 0.8% decline in January, taking them to $US202,100 — the lowest they have been since December 2003.
The backlog of new unsold homes for sale rose to 8.9 months’ supply from 7.4 months in January.
Then there were sales of existing homes (used or pre-loved): according to the National Association of Realtors this week, homes sold at an annual rate of 4.88 million in February, down 9.6% from January and 2.8% lower than February 2010 sales level.
At the same time the median used home price declined 5.2% compared to the previous year, to $US156,100.
All-cash sales went up to a record 33% of the total, up from 27% a year earlier. But the level of foreclosure sales hit 39%, up from 37% in January and the highest since April 2009. (The level of all cash sales and foreclosure sales go hand in hand. It means the number of mortgage finances sales is falling, despite interest rates about 5% for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages!)
At February’s sales rate, the level of unsold existing homes represented an 8.6 months’ supply, up from 7.5 months in January.
Analysts pointed out that in the figures for new homes is a nasty piece of deleveraging above and beyond what is going on more broadly.
New home buyers are trading down to cheaper dwelling, so much so that the only segment of the market that is seeing higher sales is the $US150,000-to-$US190,000 price range dwelling, while the high-end — the over $US750,000 chunk — has seen activity dry up this year (because getting finance for so-called jumbo mortgages is next to impossible).
New home sales now only accounted for a mere 6% share of total single family sales, versus around 20% in the cycle peak in 2005.
And several other facts. Last week the US Census Bureau reported on housing vacancies around America. The most astounding reading was the fact that 18% of all homes in Florida are vacant. That’s 1.6 million homes (or roughly the number in the greater Sydney area).
Nevada, which is the state with the nation’s highest foreclosure rate, had about 14% sitting empty. Arizona had a vacancy rate of about 16%.
And according to figures from Moody’s earlier this year, house prices in Nevada won’t return to their pre-crunch levels in nominal terms until 2032 at the earliest.
Celia Chen, an analyst at Moody’s, said: “It’s all collapsing because of the recession and over-valuation.”
Chen estimates that Las Vegas home prices will not return to their pre-recession peak until after 2032; in Phoenix, the rebound will take until 2034; and Salinas, California, and Naples, Florida, will not come back until sometime around 2038.
And these are nominal prices: inflation-adjusted recovery will take even longer. “The economies were very closely tied to residential construction,” stated Chen. “Now, housing is over-supplied and that part of the economy will not come back for a long time.”
Sharemarkets and other financial markets are ignoring this slump. They are all focused on Middle Eastern matters, rising oil prices, the Japan crisis (with commodity prices surging on the basis of a big rebuilding campaign, which won’t start for months and will take at least five years).
The same markets are even refusing to panic at Portugal’s impending bailout (which is probably a good thing).
Inflation has many investors, analysts and others transfixed (and fooled) as rising oil prices lift headline inflation rates in more and more economies.
But rising oil prices are also forcing down consumer confidence, cutting profit projections for more and more companies, forcing struggling US consumers to spend more of their meagre wages and salaries (which have hardly moved in three years) on getting too and from work and shopping (that’s for those in work. Those unemployed are losing more heavily).
The US housing sector’s incredible new slump is smothering the US employment market. A recovering home building market drags in workers directly and indirectly at suppliers. This is not happening and is one of the reasons America’s jobless rate won’t go down, despite the Fed’s two bouts of quantitative easing.
Rising sales of new and used housing is a good sign of buoyant consumer confidence, which has turned down again. And the deeper US house prices sink, the more pressure mounts on US banks and regulators to cut property values and lift loan loss reserves.
There is a growing chance Americans will realise later this year that the economy is sliding towards recession, and the debt-strapped government (at all levels) and tarnished Fed won’t have the financial or moral/political clout to stop it happening.