Saturday, 19 of August of 2017

Economics. Explained.  

Housing Starts

August 16, 2017

Housing starts fell 4.8% in July to 1,155 thousand after having jumped 7.4% in June. Because these data are particularly volatile on a month-to-month basis, it is best to look at a 3-month moving average of starts (which is the series shown in blue above).   That 3-month average now stands at 1,166 thousand which has fallen off from the 1,264 thousand peak pace in the cycle which was registered back in February.    So what is happening?  Is it a drop in demand?  Or a constraint on the part of builders?  We  believe it is the latter.

Both new and existing home sales continue to climb.   Thus, the demand for housing remains robust.

Builders remain enthusiastic in part because they see traffic through the model homes quite steady at a rapid rate.

Mortgage rates are at 3.9% which is quite low by any historical standard.

At the same time employment gains are about 170 thousand per month which is boosting income.  As a result, real disposable income (what is left after inflation and taxes) is growing at a 1.2% pace.  That is not particularly robust, but disposable income does hit slack periods from time to time and then rebounds.

Housing remains affordable for the median-price home buyer.  Mortgage rates may have risen, but income has been rising almost as quickly, hence affordability has not dropped much.  At 153.0 the index  indicates that a median-income buyer has 53.0% more income than is necessary to purchase a median-priced house.

The problem in housing is not a lack of demand.  Rather it is a constraint on the production side.  Builders have had difficulty finding an adequate supply of skilled labor.  Construction employment is growing by about 15 thousand per month.  Slow, but steady.

As one might expect there is a tight correlation between home builder confidence and the starts data which probably makes a great deal of sense.   Judging by the homebuilder confidence data we should expect starts to eventually climb to 1.5 million or so from about 1.2 million currently.  However,  as noted above, many home builders  report an inability to get the skilled workers they require.   Overcoming the labor shortage on a long-term basis will be challenging.  Employment in the construction industry will continue to climb, but slowly, which will limit the speed with which starts rise in the months ahead.

Another thing worth noting is that about 1.3 million new households are being formed every year.  Those families all need a place to live, either a single-family home or an apartment.  Thus, we need to see housing starts rise by 1.3 million just to keep pace with growth in households.  And because housing starts were substantially below the growth in households for so long, there is pent-up demand.  We expect starts to reach 1.2 million by the end of 2017 and 1.4 million in 2018.

What is interesting is that beginning late last year single family starts have begun to climb while multi-family buildings such as apartments have been slowing down.  It appears that many of the millennials who chose to rent for the last decade are getting older, perhaps starting families, and are now choosing to purchase a single family house.  In the past year single family starts have risen 10.4% while multi-family units have declined by 22.3%.

As a result, multi-family construction as a percent of the total has slipped from 36.2% in July of last year to 27.2%.

Building permits declined 4.1% in July to 1,223 thousand after having jumped 9.2% in July.  Because  permits are another volatile  indicator it is best to look at a 3-month average (which is shown below).  That 3-month moving average now stands at 1,222 thousand which continues to point towards slow but steady improvement in housing.   The reason people look at permits is because a builder must first attain a permit before beginning construction.  Thus, it is a leading indicator of what is likely to happen to starts several months down the road.  If permits are currently at 1,222 thousand, housing starts will gradually approach the 1.3 million mark.

Stephen Slifer

NumberNomics
Charleston, SC


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