Eq: Real Estate
Is New York a bellwether of US real estate performance or is it an isolated enclave with no real relevance to the majority of the country? Hard to know, but if the former, then there is a lot to worry about. NY home sales are plummeting and just showed their worst decline since the Financial Crisis. Median sales prices in Q3 dropped 12% from the previous year, the sharpest drop since 2009. Average home value fell below $1m for the first time in four years.
FINSUM: In our opinion, this is idiosyncratic to New York. The city is seeing a huge flux of newly built apartments that are boosting inventory, and at the same time there is a new progressive mansion tax hurting demand.
If you have been investing in REITs over the last few years, one of the key driving mantras has been the idea that one should move away from brick and mortar-oriented retail REITs and toward those that are more ecommerce-focused. In other words, buy REITs focused on warehouses, not those on malls. However, that arithmetic might be changing, as the big boom in warehousing is now facing headwinds because of the trade war. Recently was the first time in years that “the market didn’t lease to its full potential”, said a trade group in the space. The sector is “uniquely exposed to trade activity and manufacturing activity, which are very much impacted by the tariffs”.
FINSUM: To us this seems more likely to prove a short-term headwind than a long-term issue given the driving force behind warehouse growth is not actually tied to any trade policy, but a broader change in consumption patterns.
More data has been just released on the US real estate market, and more disappointment. While the market should be rebounding because of the big fall in mortgage rates, the opposite seems to be happening. New home construction fell by the most in five months in July. Housing starts fell 4% despite lower mortgage rates. The fall came despite expectations for growth, and June numbers were also revised downward. An economist at Zillow summarized the situation this way, saying “Scarce land and high labour costs have plagued builders for much of the year, factors that have been exacerbated by unrelenting uncertainty in the global markets … This week’s flare-up, with bond markets flashing recession warnings, does not provide fertile ground for new housing investment”.
FINSUM: The market seems to be perpetually slowing, but it has not reversed outright despite over a year of weak data. Time has proved that real estate seems a little disconnected from the rest of the economy right now; in other words, it does not seem to be an indicator of much.
Something discouraging is happening to the US real estate market. Home prices and sales are continuing to be weak despite a huge drop in mortgage rates. Lower mortgage rates should have given a boost to new home sales and construction, but the opposite has occurred. Home price gains and sales have slipped considerably and permits for new construction have fallen 6.6% in 15 months.
FINSUM: The question, as ever, is whether the weakness in housing is presaging an economy-wide recession, or is just an isolated situation. We favor the latter.
So the Fed is widely expected to cut interest rates this week, which has sent market yields tumbling over the last several weeks. However, guess what, mortgage rates were falling steeply well before this telegraphed cut. 30-year mortgage rates have fallen from just under 5% in November of last year to just 3.75% now. What is most interesting here, and most worrying, is that other consumer lending rates did not fall similarly. For instance, auto loan rates, variable credit card rates, and home equity line of credit rates have not changed nearly as much as mortgages, signaling something unique about the market.
FINSUM: We find this to be a sign of market weakness that was more driven by the economy itself than it was the Fed.
It has been years since there was much good news in US real estate. The market has been slightly pessimistic for years, but finally there might be some reason for optimism. New home sales actually rose in June, a sign that health is improving in the all-important US property sector. Sales increased 7% from May, but the average home price stayed flat from one year ago at $310,400.
FINSUM: With rates likely to fall and yields having already tumbled, it would not be surprising to see a short-term pop in real estate. It would actually be quite worrying if that doesn’t happen.