Are we at the bottom?

This is a long article from Bloomberg regarding several positive signs for housing. Georgetown real estate will benefit from these changes if things move as projected below.


Housing Real-Estate Recovery Signaled as Fed Unwinds
By Kathleen M. Howley and Rich Miller

March 15 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. housing market is poised to withstand the removal of government and Federal Reserve stimulus programs and rebound later in the year, contributing to annual economic growth for the first time since 2006.

Increases in jobs, credit and affordable homes will help offset the end of the Fed’s purchases of mortgage-backed securities this month and the expiration of a federal homebuyer tax credit in April. Sales will rise about 6 percent this year, and housing will account for 0.25 percentage point of the 3.6 percent growth, according to forecasts by Dean Maki, chief U.S. economist for Barclays Capital in New York.

“I would bet even odds that we’re at a bottom and that we’re going to see improvement in the coming months,” said Karl Case, co-creator of the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Index and a professor of economics at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

An improving market would allay concerns at the Fed that sales will relapse after the tax credit expires. It would also give Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and his colleagues, who meet this week in Washington, a freer rein to ultimately raise the interest rate for overnight loans among banks from near zero.

“They’re going to be tightening credit sooner than people expect,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd. in New York. He forecasts that the Fed’s first increase since 2006 may come as soon as June.

Reflecting Optimism

Homebuilders’ shares reflect the optimism. The 12-member Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Homebuilding Index hit a five- month high March 9 on speculation the expanding economy will boost sales. The index has gained 14 percent this year, led by a 41 percent jump in Columbus, Ohio-based M/I Homes Inc., a 31 percent increase by Standard Pacific Corp. in Irvine, California, and a 28 percent rise in Miami-based Lennar Corp.

Recent housing data have been mixed. Sales of existing homes fell 7.2 percent in January, while housing starts rose 2.8 percent, according to statistics from the National Association of Realtors in Chicago and the Commerce Department in Washington. Builder confidence declined unexpectedly this month to 15 from 17 in February according to a National Association of Home Builders/Well Fargo index, as traffic of prospective buyers dropped to a one-year low. A reading below 50 means most respondents view conditions as poor.

Rising Sales

Sales of new homes still are forecast to increase this year as the economy improves, according to David Crowe, chief economist for the association in Washington, probably totaling 459,000 in 2010, up from 372,000 last year, he said.

Employment is key to the outlook, according to Patrick Newport, an economist with IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.

“When people get jobs, that’s when they move or decide to buy a bigger house,” he said.

The U.S. may add as many as 300,000 jobs in March, the most in four years, thanks to an improvement in the weather, government hiring of temporary workers for the census and a growing economy, said David Greenlaw, chief fixed-income economist at Morgan Stanley in New York. Payrolls dropped by 36,000 in February, according to the Labor Department, depressed in part by East Coast snowstorms that closed many businesses.

“The underlying trend is turning positive,” said Bruce Kasman, chief economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York.

Solid Footing

The Senate last week approved a $138 billion measure that would extend unemployment benefits and provide additional aid to states. President Barack Obama praised the bill’s passage, saying it will help put the U.S. back on a solid footing.

The economy is projected to grow 3 percent this year, according to the median forecast of 52 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News from March 1 to March 10. It expanded at a 5.9 percent annual pace in the fourth quarter, the most in more than six years, after a 2.2 percent increase in the third.

Credit conditions may also be improving. A net 13.2 percent of banks surveyed by the Fed in January reported that they tightened standards on prime mortgage loans in the fourth quarter, the smallest percentage since the central bank began tallying such data three years ago.

“This is an important step in the right direction,” Peter Hooper, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, and his colleagues wrote in a report to clients last month.

Mortgage originations for the purchase of a home will rise to $745 billion this year and $822 billion next year, the highest since 2008, from $740 billion in 2009, according to forecasts from the Washington-based Mortgage Bankers Association.

More Affordable

Falling home prices and low mortgage rates have made homes more affordable. The median price was $164,700 in January, matching the year-ago level, which was the lowest since May 2002, according to the Realtors’ association. The trade group will report February housing data next week.

The average rate for a 30-year fixed mortgage was 4.95 percent last week, up from a record-low 4.71 percent in December, according to Freddie Mac, the McLean, Virginia-based mortgage buyer.

The average household had 177.8 percent of the income needed to purchase a property in January, the highest since a record 184 percent in April 2009, when mortgage rates tumbled to 4.78 percent, according to data from the Realtors’ association.

First Hurdle

The housing market’s first hurdle comes at the end of this month, when the Fed completes its program to purchase $1.25 trillion of mortgage-backed securities and about $175 billion of housing-agency debt.

The move probably won’t have much impact, said Mahesh Swaminathan, a mortgage strategist at Credit Suisse Holdings USA in New York. Private demand will replace the central bank, keeping down the spread at which mortgage-backed securities trade to 10-year Treasury notes, he said. The spread on Friday was about 60 basis points.

“We don’t anticipate a massive widening of spreads once the Fed stops buying,” he said. “It will be a few basis points here and there.”

As a result, he sees mortgage rates remaining “about where they are now.”

Much of the private buying will come from money managers who are underweight mortgage-backed securities in their portfolios relative to their benchmarks, said Ajay Rajadhyaksha, managing director of Barclays Capital in New York, who sees spreads rising about 15 basis points in the second quarter.

Next Obstacle

Once the Fed completes its purchases, the next obstacle for the market is the expiration of the tax credit for first-time home buyers. The original credit helped boost existing-home sales by 4.9 percent to 5.16 million in 2009, the first increase since 2005, according to the Realtors’ association. The credit, which was slated to end on Nov. 30, was expanded and extended through April.

The Fed’s Beige Book business survey released March 3 found that some contacts in the housing industry are “apprehensive about future sales” of homes once the credit expires, even though the extension hasn’t helped as much as the initial incentive.

“A lot of people moved up their purchases to meet the original deadline and that used up a lot of the pool of potential buyers,” IHS Global’s Newport said.

The credit of as much as $8,000 stimulated only 180,000 extra sales from December to April, said Crowe of the home- builders’ association.

‘Certainly Positive’

It was “certainly positive, but it has not fueled a huge increase in sales,” Ara K. Hovnanian, chairman and chief executive officer of Red Bank, New Jersey-based Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., the nation’s seventh largest homebuilder by revenue, told analysts on March 3.

The final challenge for the housing market this year is the supply of available properties and the prospect that it may rise. Foreclosures may increase to 2.2 million this year from a record 1.7 million last year, according to a forecast by Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Economy.com in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The number of vacant homes for sale rose to 2.09 million in the fourth quarter from 1.99 million in the prior period as banks seized property, the U.S. Census Bureau said Feb. 2.

An improvement in the job market would spur household formation and help absorb the excess supply, said Thomas Lawler, a former economist with Washington-based mortgage company Fannie Mae who now is an independent housing consultant in Leesburg, Virginia.

Living with Mom and Dad

There may be 1.25 million new households in 2010 if the economy continues to expand, he said. The number has stayed below 1 million for the last three years as adult children lived with their parents and Americans generally conserved cash, he said.

“If we get a rebound, you could see excess supply disappear very quickly,” Lawler said.

“The underlying trend in home sales is for gradual improvement,” Maki of Barclays Capital said. “While activity will remain at low levels for some time, the housing bust is essentially over.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kathleen M. Howley in Boston at kmhowley@bloomberg.netRich Miller in Washington rmiller28@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: March 15, 2010 13:47 EDT

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