Housing at stage 2 of a 17-step recovery

Commentary: U.S. economy has lost momentum, but not entering a recession

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Reading media reports of economics is usually an exercise in decoding political bias and trying to find the center of things. Today we’re in enough trouble that to understand "news" we must also strip away hope — and pessimism.

Big week for all of that.

First thing first: the U.S. has lost some forward momentum, but is not entering recession.

Consumer spending did not rise at all in May, dead flat, but orders for new durable goods doubled the forecast. New claims for unemployment insurance are running 385,000 weekly, up 15 percent from last year’s best run since 2008, but not spiking. There are some flickers of hope from housing, but that’s all (more below). Definitive reports for June come next Monday and Friday, purchasing managers and payrolls.

Europe … we have another "relief rally" underway today (Dow up 220, gold up $55), as yet another Brussels summit has delivered yet more fibs to buy time.

However, this time is different. After all prior can-kicking, markets took the bait, believing that Europe intended actual material progress. This time a lot of people (including me) had talked themselves into believing the eurozone was about to pull its own plug, maybe as soon as this weekend.

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Today’s relief rally does not reflect any belief whatever in European progress; it is instead a cynical, tired, shoulder-slump at the sight of people without the courage to take the Luger to a quiet spot and do the honorable thing.

The telltale as always in these last years: the 10-year Treasury note. The sum-total extent of relief is a rise in yield from 1.57 percent to 1.65 percent. Mortgages are in the high-threes, unchanged.

Housing is improving, but in a 17-step program to recovery has reached perhaps stage two.

The most recent is from April (housing data suffer terrible lag, especially the accurate stuff). Case-Shiller found a 0.7 percent rise in prices in April to a level about even with one year ago.

The house price index maintained by Fannie and Freddie’s regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (which I much prefer), found a 3 percent price increase year over year — essentially all of it in the first four months of 2012.

For descriptive amusement, see latest the house price index from fhfa.gov. Scroll to pages 36 and 37 of the HPI report to see the 20 best — and 20 worst — markets of 303 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) tracked.

My home town — very-low-inventory Boulder, Colo. — ranks as the 10th best of all. And we feel like it, although our one-year price gain is only 2.35 percent, and five-year plus 1.6 percent.

Bend, Ore., ranks third-best with 4.85 percent appreciation last year. However, its overall five-year result has been -43 percent.

Among the 20 worst, fourth-place Las Vegas has lost 60 percent of value in five years, including 8.79 percent last year. In 16th place, Atlanta is down 23 percent overall in five years, including 6.33 percent lost last year.

Today’s greatest mystery: where is the distressed inventory?

Lender Processing Services (lpsvcs.com) has the best data: the number of homes in foreclosure somewhere has not changed in a year. Serious delinquency (90 days late or in foreclosure) has fallen from 7.86 percent of all homes to 7.37 percent, a huge swamp draining imperceptibly. Total foreclosure sales were only 66,000 in April versus 4.5 million shadow inventory in terminal distress, outflow not significantly larger than inflow.

We have a long way to go before housing will lead the economy up.

Speaking of leading … the economic stories this week and year are dwarfed by events in leadership often responsible for the economic results.

The principal reason that housing is unable to lead the economy: there is no public policy. Congress is entertained by gridlock on the subject, the right hating any federal assistance whatever, and the left amused by hating all bankers. Mr. Bernanke, the leadership hero of this time, in January orchestrated the finest housing-policy recommendations of the decade and got no response from any other office of government.

Competing theories of leadership: great people appear and then move events; alternately, deeply troubled times call great people forward. Look around the world, and it’s hard to figure by either theory how the supply could be so thin.

Then from nowhere, a man granted high station and for seven years in office amounting to nothing, from that nowhere somehow found greatness. Thank you, John Roberts. Not for saving Obamacare, but for showing the way beyond partisanship.

Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker and nationally syndicated columnist based in Boulder, Colo. He can be reached at lbarnes@pmglending.com.


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