Is your home’s price about to fall 10% further?
That’s what two respected teams of analysts are predicting right now. And TrimTabs Investment Research is more pessimistic, suggesting it could be five or six years before home prices stabilize and move higher.
Of course, this is just one more problem for investors and consumers to worry about. The economy appears to be slowing again. Stocks have ambled sideways since February. The U.S. government faces the prospect of a technical default on the national debt.
Indeed, we’re looking at a time of serious upheaval. We’ve had the Arab Spring in the Middle East. There’s been a spate of natural disasters, including Japan’s earthquake and nuclear plant meltdown, as well as floods and tornadoes in America’s heartland. And frothy commodities markets have suffered violent setbacks, with silver in particular showing symptoms of excessive speculation. And don’t forget that the dollar, after being left for dead, is rising like Lazarus, reanimated by new fears over Greece and the future of the eurozone.
The best and worst housing markets
In all of the tumult, it’s easy to forget that the root cause of all this mess — now entering its fourth year — continues to fester like an untreated wound. I’m talking about the U.S. housing market, which, by some measures, has fallen to new lows. After showing signs of hope late last year in the wake of the homebuyer tax credit, it’s now suffering fresh setbacks and reaccelerating price declines.
Consumers, weighed down by rising inflationary pressure and lackluster job growth, are losing confidence. At the same time, tight lending standards and efforts to reform Wall Street and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are restricting access to mortgage credit. Right now, housing finance survives on government largesse: Government-backed entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now account for 95% of new mortgages.
All of this is limiting economic growth by keeping pressure on the financial system. And it risks the creation of a negative feedback loop in which lower home prices result in more homeowners falling into negative equity, leading to more foreclosures, more bank losses, tighter credit and, ultimately, further price declines.
All this leads the analysts to predict another drop in prices before a solid bottom is found. For potential landlords, especially those with cash in hand, this could mean it’s time to buy property. For investors, it means bargains on a lot of related equities; I’ll have some names later in this column, though I wouldn’t start buying just yet.
But for homeowners? More pain. Here’s why.
Longtime readers will remember that last December, when the economic outlook was much brighter, I penned a column (“Why it’s safe to buy homes again“) encouraging buyers to jump back into real estate. And if you got a low interest rate and you planned to stay put, it was. I also wrote that barring some “unforeseen calamity, another self-perpetuating cycle of higher home prices” could be seen as early as this year.
Unfortunately, we’ve had a few calamities since then; Fed-induced inflation, the Portuguese bailout, unrest in Libya and Japan’s quake have led to a manufacturing slowdown. Economic growth slowed dramatically in the first quarter of this year to just 1.8% from 3.1% in the fourth quarter. The team at Capital Economics noted that households had “been hit hard by surging prices for everyday necessities such as food and energy.”
And now there is evidence that the job market is softening again, with the unemployment rate popping back up to 9% in April. (I covered the economic slowdown and its impact on stocks in my April 27 column, “Investors, it’s time to run and hide.”)
Housing activity is way down because of all this. Home sales have stagnated near recessionary lows after unwinding the temporary boost from the homebuyer tax credit. Demand for new mortgages has dropped back to levels not seen since the depths of the financial crisis in 2008. Homebuilder confidence has sunk to very low levels — and stayed there — for more than three years and hasn’t been positive since April 2006.
As a result, home prices have started falling again. What’s more, the price declines seem to be accelerating, with the 20-city Case-Shiller Home Price Index off 3.3% in February from its year-ago level — a drop of a magnitude not seen since late 2009. That’s the eighth consecutive month-over-month price decline. The homeownership rate also continued to fall as more and more distressed owners became renters.
There are still some pluses
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the long-term factors I mentioned back in December are still valid. These include record affordability, thanks to low prices and low borrowing rates, and still-favorable long-term demographics, as the United States is one of the few wealthy nations set to enjoy an expanding workforce in the years to come — unlike Japan and most of Europe.