The housing market is always a reliable barometer of the U.S. economy because consumers need more faith in the future to buy a home than to make practically any other purchase they consider.
Reports on December sales of new and existing homes flowed out from Washington last week. Understanding the most important information they provided requires reading beyond the headlines.
The Commerce Department said Thursday that sales of new single-family homes fell 10.4 percent in December, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 536,000, from the previous month. They were down 0.4 percent from December 2015.
Nonetheless, the December decline came after three months of solid gains, and MarketWatch said the government now estimates that 563,000 new homes were sold last year, 12.2 percent more than in 2015 and the highest total since 2007.
“This drop in sales [in December] is in line with the message from the summer’s fall in mortgage applications,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macro, said in remarks MarketWatch quoted. “The apps data suggest sales will remain close to their December level for another couple months. Then sales should rebound to about 600,000 by April, reflecting the post-election jump in applications.”
Bloomberg said the December data suggested that an increase in mortgage rates after the November presidential election discouraged some possible buyers. The average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage was 4.32 percent at the end of December. That was the highest rate since April 2014, according to figures from the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., also known as Freddie Mac.
“This could be the first sign that the rise in mortgage rates since the election is starting to affect housing demand,” Barclays Plc economist Blerina Uruçi said in a research note the Bloomberg report cited. “The decline in new-home sales could be followed by a slowdown in existing-home sales in the coming months.”
Home resales did decline in December, by 2.8 percent, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.49 million, from an upwardly revised 5.65 million in November, the National Association of Realtors said on Jan. 24. The trade group blamed “ongoing affordability tensions and historically low supply levels.”
Nonetheless, 2016 was the best year in a decade for existing-home sales. The NAR said sales finished the year at 5.45 million and surpassed 2015 (5.25 million) as the highest since 2006 (6.48 million).
"Solid job creation throughout 2016 and exceptionally low mortgage rates translated into a good year for the housing market,” Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist, said in a statement. "However, higher mortgage rates and home prices, combined with record-low inventory levels, stunted sales in much of the country in December."
"While a lack of listings and fast-rising home prices was a headwind all year, the surge in rates since early November ultimately caught some prospective buyers off-guard and dimmed their appetite or ability to buy a home as 2016 came to an end,” Yun added.
Economists said the decline probably does not suggest the housing industry is due for a slump.
"The dip in housing sales is more a sign of the lack of homes to be bought than the desire to buy homes," Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa., told Reuters. "It is hard to sell homes that are not for sale."
Said Nela Richardson, chief economist at Redfin in Washington, "Buyers are out touring in droves, ready to pounce on new listings that fit the bill. The only thing missing is homes for sale to satisfy demand because there just aren't a lot of homes available to buy right now."
The latest reading on consumer confidence backed that view. The University of Michigan’s final Consumer Sentiment Index for January rose 0.3 points, to 98.5, from the previous month as “consumers expressed a higher level of confidence in January than any other time in the last dozen years,” Richard Curtin, chief economist of the university’s Surveys of Consumers, said in a statement.
“The post-election surge in confidence was driven by a more optimistic outlook for the economy and job growth during the year ahead, as well as more favorable economic prospects over the next five years,” Curtin added. “Consumers also reported much more positive assessments of their current financial situation, due to gains in both incomes and household wealth, and anticipated the most positive outlook for their personal finances in more than a decade.”
MarketWatch said the confidence survey was 7.1 percent higher than it was a year earlier. Curtin did add one caveat.
“Overall, the post-election surge in consumer confidence was based on political promises, and not, as yet, on economic outcomes,” he said.
Indeed, the final 2016 report on the nation’s gross domestic product showed that the economy slowed in the fourth quarter. The Commerce Department said GDP expanded by just 1.9 percent, a significant decline from third-quarter growth of 3.5 percent.
For the full year, the economy grew just 1.6 percent, compared with 2.6 percent in 2015 — the weakest performance since 2011. MarketWatch said the last time the United States topped 3 percent growth was in 2005. The historical average is 3.3 percent.
“The U.S. economy was in decent, if unspectacular, shape at the end of 2016,” said Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial Services, told MarketWatch.
Other economists saw only a temporary reason for the month-to-month decline and were optimistic about the country’s prospects under new President Donald Trump.
“We would be wary of reading too much into the slowdown in GDP growth from 3.5 percent annualized in the third quarter to 1.9 percent in the fourth because the temporary spike in soybean exports boosted the former and was a drag on the latter," Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, wrote in remarks quoted in a Business Insider report.
"Overall, with the survey evidence improving and the prospect of a big fiscal stimulus, focused on large income tax cuts, later this year, we expect GDP growth to accelerate from a disappointing 1.6 percent in 2016 to 2.7 percent in 2017.”
Going inside the numbers one more time, the GDP report showed that consumer spending rose 2.5 percent during the quarter as people were eager to buy — among other things — new cars and computers.
Purchases of long-lasting or durable goods rose nearly 11 percent.