Eq: Total Market
In what could be could news for those worried about the Fed hiking us into a recession, one of the Fed’s top leaders has just come out with a very dovish tone. St. Louis Fed chief Bullard says the Fed needs to slow its pace of rate hikes to preserve its credibility. “Inflation expectations in the U.S. remain somewhat low, suggesting that further normalization may not be necessary to keep inflation near target”. He suggests that the best policy going forward may be to freeze hikes.
FINSUM: One of the things that has worried us about the Fed is that they seem to be viewing rate hikes as some sort of automatic pre-determined path towards normalization rather than basing it on actual inflation numbers.
There have been some serious warnings about real estate from reputable sources lately, but not much data to support them. To this point, most fears have been centered around how rising rates might hurt the market, but none of that had emerged in the data, until now. A new US housing report has just showed that sales of existing US homes fell 2.5% in April. Low inventory and higher prices seem to be putting a dampening effect on buyers, says the Wall Street Journal.
FINSUM: This is a worrying stat for us, and its importance is elevated by the fact that the figure comes from April, which is part of the all-important spring home-buying season. The next few months of data will be very important.
US real estate has been humming along quite nicely for several years. The market has been so steady as to be considered in a goldilocks period. Rates were low, lending standards slowly slipped, and the market kept rolling with high demand. However, that period may finally now have come to an end as mortgage rates are rising quickly. Mortgage rates just hit a seven year high, which could mean demand for housing softens as borrowers are unwilling to pay higher rates. The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage now sits at 4.61%. Rates bottomed in 2012 at an average rate of 3.31%.
FINSUM: We think this is definitely going to have an effect on mortgage demand, especially on mortgages in urban areas, where amounts tend to be larger.
There is a little known recession predictor that has done a good job historically of predicting when the economy is about to go into reverse: conception rate. Based on analysis from 1989 to 2016, a period with over 100 million US births, three economists have found that conception rate consistently dropped just prior to recessions. Conception rate is different than birth rate in that it measures the decision to have a baby, not the actual birth of one. The economists found that months or quarters before a recession, the decision to have a baby declined.
FINSUM: So conception rate and birth rate are different, but obviously very linked. So, what is scary to find out is that the US birth rate just hit its lowest level since 1987. Reason to worry?
Investors beware, credit quality is quickly eroding in the real estate sector. While lending standards started strong after the Crisis, they have eroded significantly in the last few years as investor demand for yields has pushed lenders further down the credit spectrum and eroded protections. The credit quality of both prime and sub-prime borrowers has fallen and the popularity of CRT (credit risk transfer) securities, or mortgage bonds not fully backed by Fannie and Freddie, has risen. Worryingly, yields have not reacted to the decline in quality, as such risky CRT bonds have recently traded at less than a 100 bp premium to Treasuries.
FINSUM: So the big worry with mortgage bonds is that they always collapse faster than any model can predict. Because mortgage payments are so linked to the underlying economy and employment, when a recession happens, the defaults just flood in. We could be headed in that direction.
There are a lot of investors worried about the US housing market at the moment. As rates rise, and a potential recession looms, some think housing could falter. On the flipside, however, it is often considered that home supply is low and demand is high, which has been pushing up prices and shows no signs of abating. Now, there is another factor to consider—US building materials prices are surging. Everything from lumber (up 16%) to insulation is jumping in price. Homebuilders say that despite the rise in costs, they have been able to offset the increases by hiking their prices, which they say consumers have been willing to pay.
FINSUM: The appetite for homes and new construction seems very strong at the moment, and certainly good enough to carry the market for a while yet.