Morning Report: Housing starts disappoint

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 3009 0.35
Oil (WTI) 59.54 -0.07
10 year government bond yield 2.09%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.12%

 

Stocks are flat as bank earnings continue to come in. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

Another month, another disappointing housing starts number. Starts fell from an annualized pace of 1.3 million to 1.22 million in June, according to Census. Building permits were a mixed bag, falling to 1.25 million, however May’s numbers were revised upwards. Both starts and permits were below street expectations.

 

Despite the disappointing housing starts number, builder confidence rose one point to 65 in July. Demand remains strong, however labor shortages, few buildable lots and rising construction costs are making it difficult to build at the lower price points, where the demand is particularly acute.

 

Mortgage applications fell 1.1% last week as purchases fell by 3.8% and refis rose 1.5%. Rates increased, with the 30 year fixed rate mortgage rising by 8 basis points to 4.12%.  “Mortgage rates increased across the board, with the 30-year fixed rate mortgage rising to its highest level in a month to 4.12 percent, which is still below this year’s average of 4.45 percent,” said Joel Kan, MBA Associate Vice President of Economic and Industry Forecasting. “Coming out of the July 4 holiday, applications were lower overall, with purchase activity slipping almost 4 percent. Refinance applications increased, with activity reaching its highest level in a month, driven mainly by FHA refinance applications. Historically, government refinance activity lags slightly in response to rate changes.”

 

Bank of America reported strong earnings this morning. Mortgage origination volume was up 56% YOY to $18.2 billion.  Separately, Quicken announced they originated $32 billion in the second quarter.

 

Second quarter growth in China fell to 6.2%, the lowest level in 27 years. The implications for this will revolve primarily around inflation and Fed policy. The Chinese economy has a real estate bubble of epic proportions, and once that bursts it will have ramifications in the urban high-end market, but it will also be felt in lower inflation numbers. China will probably try and export its way out of the slowdown, although tariffs will make it difficult. That said, a slowdown in emerging Asia and Europe will usher in even lower interest rates.

 

 

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Morning Report: Powell discusses homebuilding

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 3009 6.5
Oil (WTI) 60.31 0.26
10 year government bond yield 2.14%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.11%

 

Stocks are higher this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are down.

 

Two Fed governors (Bostic and Barkin) pushed back on the need to cut rates to maintain the expansion yesterday. That might have explained the increase in the 10 year yesterday afternoon.

 

Inflation at the wholesale level rose 0.1% month over month and 2.3% YOY, according to the Producer Price Index. Ex-food and energy, it was flat MOM and up 2.1% YOY. Inflation remains comfortably stuck in a range around 2%.

 

Jerome Powell mentioned homebuilding in his Humphrey-Hawkins testimony yesterday. He blamed tariffs and labor shortages for the lack of building. That said, the underbuilding phenomenon didn’t just start in the last couple of years – housing starts have been at recessionary levels since 2008, and we have had an acute shortage of housing for at least 7 years. Something else is going on, although immigration restrictions and tariffs certainly don’t help matters. But that isn’t the explanation. When you look at new home sales divided by population, you can see just how much we have underbuilt:

 

new home sales divided by population

 

The CFPB has been upping its spending on consumer financial education. Democrats are complaining that it shifts the burden of consumer protection from the financial industry to consumers. That said, the enforcement budget has increased.

 

Jim Grant argues in the WSJ for a return to the gold standard.

Morning Report: Rates continue to move lower

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2746 -5
Oil (WTI) 54.23 0.76
10 year government bond yield 2.12%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.18%

 

Stocks are lower as trade fears dominate the market’s mood. Bonds and MBS are up (yields down). The 10 year hit 2.07% in the overnight session.

 

On the open, it is looking like mortgage backed securities are lagging the move in Treasuries. Prepayment speed worries are behind it. It may take a couple of days for mortgage rates to catch up.

 

The upcoming week will have a slew of important economic data, with construction spending, the ISM numbers and the jobs report on Friday. Productivity and costs will be another key number, although the Fed is more worried about a slowdown than an acceleration of inflation. After that, the Fed goes into their quiet period ahead of the FOMC meeting in two weeks.

 

Housing affordability is at its strongest in about a year, according to Black Knight Financial. The annual rate of housing inflation fell below the 25 year average of home price appreciation for the first time since 2012. 22% of median income was required to purchase the average house, which is will below the historical average of around 25%. Most of that has to do with lower interest rates, but slowing home price appreciation and rising incomes have been the drivers there.

 

According to Sentier Research, the median income in March of 2019 was $64,016. NAR has the median home price at $267,300. This puts the median house price to median income ratio at just under 4.2x. This is still elevated compared to historical numbers, but low interest rates offset the high multiple.

 

Affordability issues are driving a new business model for builders in some high-cost areas: build to rent. Toll Brothers is going to spend something like $60 million in a joint venture to build rental properties. “Renting by choice” is one of the new consumer trends, and it may not be going anywhere. The plan is to stick rental properties in planned communities that are more or less identical to neighboring properties. Why would people choose to rent? If they are worried about another housing bubble, they shouldn’t. That isn’t going to happen again for a long, long time. If they believe they need a 20% down payment, then the industry has an education job to do. If they are doing it because they want the freedom to move easily, that will probably change once they have kids.

 

Construction spending was flat in April, according to the Census Bureau. Residential was down 0.6% MOM and 11.2% YOY.

Morning Report: The Fed maintains rates

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2928 4
Eurostoxx index 390.26 -0.72
Oil (WTI) 62.94 -0.66
10 year government bond yield 2.53%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.23%

 

Stocks are up this morning after the Fed maintained rates. Bonds and MBS are down.

 

As expected, the Fed maintained the Fed Funds rate at current levels, although they did tweak the rate on overnight reserves. During the press conference, Jerome Powell pushed back against the idea that the Fed’s next move will be a cut. Rates initially fell down the 2.46% level, but overnight retraced that move and we are back at levels we saw before the meeting. The Fed was surprised by the strength in both the job market and the overall economy and the fact that inflation remains lower than they would like to see.

 

At the press conference, a number of journalists asked about the market’s forecast for another rate cut. Powell stressed that the Committee’s view is that the current level of interest rates is “appropriate” and that core inflation was running close to the Fed’s target of 2% for most of 2018. The Fed Funds futures trimmed their estimates for a 2019 rate cut, from a 2/3 chance to more 50/50.  MBS spreads are slightly wider (meaning mortgage rates are a touch higher relative to the 10 year than they were yesterday).

 

Fed fund futures dec 2019

 

Construction spending fell 0.9% MOM and 0.8% YOY in March, according to the Census Bureau. Residential construction drove the decrease, falling 1.8% MOM and 8.4% YOY. Ex-residential construction, spending was solid, but we could see a downward revision in Q1 GDP estimates due to the resi numbers.

 

Productivity rose 3.6% in the first quarter as unit labor costs fell 0.9%. Q4’s productivity number was revised upward to 1.3%. Not sure what drove the decrease in unit labor costs – wages have been rising – but the problems with measuring productivity in this economy have been noted before. Regardless, the drop in labor costs and higher output mean inflation should remain below the Fed’s 2% target.

 

Initial jobless claims rose to 230k last week.

 

Lumber prices have been falling after spiking at record levels last year. Given that this is the time of year we should see more demand, this is surprising. The driver has been weather and continued weakness in homebuilding. Lower commodity prices should increase the margins for homebuilders and hopefully incent more homebuilding. Note that the S&P homebuilder ETF is up 25% this year.

 

What would happen to mortgage rates if we release Fannie and Freddie from conservatorship? Currently, Fannie and Freddie debt is treated as sovereign debt by investors, in other words, they believe the government will stand behind the debt if the GSEs run into trouble. This lowers their cost of funds, which gets passed on to borrowers in lower mortgage rates. If Fannie and Freddie are released from conservatorship, and the government no longer backs their debt, it will increase mortgage rates overall (their debt will definitely NOT be AAA), and will probably impact their ability to do perform the affordable housing part of their mandate. It is important to remember the reason why Fannie and Freddie were privatized in the first place – it was done in the 1970s to paper over the debt being issued to fund the Vietnam war. In a way, the government was using off-balance sheet financing, similar to the special purpose vehicles banks were using in the mid 00s. If there is more than 20% outside ownership in the subsidiary, then the parent is no longer required to consolidate the subsidiary’s debt on its balance sheet. In other words, they don’t have to claim that debt on their books, even if they are guaranteeing it. This accounting sleight of hand lowered the US debt numbers in the 1970s and it was hoped that this would help fight rising inflation (obviously that did not work). It may turn out that there would not be a bid for new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock without a government credit wrapper, which means that hopes for a fully privatized Fannie and Freddie might turn out to be impossible to achieve.

Morning Report: New home sales surprise on the upside

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2786.75 -4
Eurostoxx index 376.51 0.03
Oil (WTI) 56.07 0.4
10 year government bond yield 2.70%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.43%

 

Stocks are lower this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are up.

 

The economy added 183,000 jobs in February, according to the ADP Employment Survey. The Street is looking for about 180,000 additions in Friday’s employment situation report, so the ADP numbers seem to be in line.

 

Mortgage applications decreased 2.5% last week as purchases fell by 2.6% and refis fell 2%. The typical mortgage rate rose by 2 basis point to 4.67%.

 

The ISM non-manufacturing index expanded in February, which means that the services sector is picking up momentum.  The biggest issues seem to be potential trade issues, labor shortages and trucking costs.

 

New Home Sales rose by 621,000 in December. This is up 3.7% from the downward-revised November number, but down 1.5% from a year ago. For the full year, 622,000 homes were sold, which is slightly higher than the 613,000 sold in 2017. The median price was $318,000, while the average price was $377,000. The median sales price has been declining over the past year after peaking in November 2017 at $343,400. This demonstrates the shift from luxury to entry-level home construction to meet demand. This is a reversal of the early years of the crisis, when the luxury end of the market was the only part that was working.

 

Note that new home sales are about where they were during the 60s – 80s. Pretty amazing when you take into account that the US population has increased by close to 60% since 1970.

 

new home sales

 

Here is a copy of the letter that NAR, MBA, and a host of other housing advocates sent to Joseph Otting, Acting Director of the FHFA regarding GSE reform. It urges FHFA to go slow, work to maintain the 30 year fixed rate mortgage, and allow the GSE’s to act as a counter-cyclical buffer.

 

The Fed is catching up to the markets. Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren said it could be “several meetings” before the Fed gets enough clarity on the economy to make a move in interest rates. In many ways, he is acknowledging what the Fed Funds futures have been saying for a while now – that the Fed is going to wait and see how the 2018 hikes affect the economy before making any further moves. Since monetary policy generally acts with a 9 – 15 month lag, it means that the economy still hasn’t factored in the Sep and Dec hikes from last year.

Morning Report: 2018 GDP highest in 12 years.

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2788 -6.75
Eurostoxx index 371.36 -1.22
Oil (WTI) 56.82 -0.13
10 year government bond yield 2.67%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.34%

 

Stocks are lower this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are down.

 

Fourth quarter GDP came in at 2.6%, a deceleration from the third quarter reading of 3.4%, but much higher than many in the political economic punditry were predicting. Consumer spending rose 2.8%, while inflation rose 1.6%. Inflation fell from 1.8% in the third quarter. For 2019, GDP came in at 2.9%, the highest reading since 2006.

 

Initial Jobless Claims rose to 225,000 continuing a string of extremely low readings.

 

One of the most politically explosive issues these days concerns wage growth – why it seems to be so low and what can be done about it. Many will misinterpret cherry-picked numbers to make the claim that wages have not increased for 40 years, which is preposterous. That said, wage growth has been running in the high 2s, and with inflation around 2%, that equates to under 1% real wage growth. Modest, but certainly not what you would expect, especially this far into a recovery, especially with unemployment running below 4%. If the numbers don’t appear to comport with common sense, often times there is an issue with the numbers.  That seems to be the case here. It turns out that wage growth is quite a bit higher, and it is due to the measurement problems inherent in the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s calculations. The BLS basically adds up wages paid and divides it by hours worked. If higher paid older workers are exiting, and younger lower paid workers are entering it will depress the averages, and it won’t accurately measure the growth that someone who has stayed in the labor force for the entire year has seen. Take a look at the chart below, where the Fed imputed average wage growth from census data as opposed to the BLS. Wage inflation jumps from 3% to 5%, which makes a lot more sense given the current economic numbers.

 

average hourly earnings vs census

 

Toll Brothers reported an increase in pretax earnings and sales for the first quarter of 2019. Orders declined in a big way however, falling 24% in units and 31% in dollars, driven primarily by weakness in California. Home price appreciation has been moderating in the hotter markets, and it is especially pronounced in the luxury segment, where Toll resides. The cancellation rate jumped to 9.6% from 5.3% a year ago. Tax reform limited the mortgage interest deduction, and the luxury segment is most prominent in high tax states, so those two effects are squeezing demand.

 

Realtor.com predicts this year’s Spring Selling Season could be the weakest in years despite rising inventory. While lower rates have improved conditions compared to late 2018, we are still weaker than early 2018.

Morning Report: Homebuilder sentiment improves

Vital Statistics:

 

Last Change
S&P futures 2783.25 -3
Eurostoxx index 370.68 -0.04
Oil (WTI) 56.9 0.81
10 year government bond yield 2.67%
30 year fixed rate mortgage 4.43%

 

Stocks are flattish on no major news. Bonds and MBS are flat as well.

 

Homebuilder sentiment improved markedly in February according to the NAHB / Wells Fargo Homebuilder Sentiment Index. Expectations for future sales drove the increase. The index touched a 3 year low in late 2018, so things are still disappointing compared to 2016-2017, but well above historical numbers. Challenges remain for the building industry however. “The five-point jump on the six-month sales expectation for the HMI is due to mortgage interest rates dropping from about 5% in November to 4.4% this week,” Dietz continued. “However, affordability remains a critical issue. Rising costs stemming from excessive regulations, a dearth of buildable lots, a persistent labor shortage and tariffs on lumber and other key building materials continue to make it increasingly difficult to produce housing at affordable price points.”

 

The FOMC minutes didn’t really contain much in the way of new information. They see the balance sheet reduction ending sooner than anticipated, which means the Fed will no longer have a $800 billion balance sheet like it had pre-crisis – it will now probably be in the $3 – $4 trillion range. Second, there is uncertainty whether there will be more hikes in 2019. The Fed Funds futures have been predicting no further hikes this year for several months now, so perhaps this is simply the members catching up with what the markets are saying. Note Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester thinks we may need to still hike rates this year and end tapering.

 

MBA mortgage applications increased 3.6% from the previous week as refis increased 6% and purchases increased 2%.  Rates actually increased by 8 basis points to 4.56%. While refi activity has been increasing from the dismal levels at the end of 2018, they are still well below historically anemic. A combination of prepayment burnout and rising rates are driving the decrease. Going forward, home price appreciation, not interest rates will be the impetus for refinance activity as cash-outs will inevitably rise to pay off credit card debt and FHA borrowers with sufficient equity will want to refinance into conventional loans with no MI.

 

Chart: MBA Refinance index 1998 = Present

MBA refinance index

 

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