U.S. housing data for May was out today, and no matter how you look at it the report was bleak. The number of houses under construction fell to a record low of 475,000. The 17% drop in single-family homes was the biggest since the 1990-91 recession. Applications for permits were the lowest in a year.
There were hints that the housing market was already in trouble last month when construction permits fell 10%. They dropped an additional 5.9% in May. The federal government housing tax credit expired at the end of April and builders clearly understood that without government subsidies consumers were going to take a hike. And take a hike they did - mortgage purchase applications peaked on April 30th, the last day of the tax credit, and are now at a 13-year low even though mortgage rates have come down.
Housing starts are now down 70% from their peak even though the federal government has made Herculean efforts to support the market. U.S. housing was in a bubble and there is no case in history of a bubble being reinflated immediately after a collapse. Trying to do so is equivalent to pouring money down a drain. There is no better example of this than ongoing federal government subsidies of Fannie Mae (FNM) and Freddie Mac (FRE). Bloomberg has just estimated that these will reach $1 trillion (more than the entire TARP program). U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill. Fannie and Freddie are going to be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, probably on July 8th. So much for unlimited financial support from the federal government leading to success.
Housing was the epicenter of the Credit Crisis collapse. The market has not returned to health and it is not likely that it will for many more years. The overall U.S. economy itself is now on the verge of turning down again as well. ECRI leading indicators turned negative last week. The last time they did so was in September 2007. A recession began two months later. So far, the ECRI is downplaying its own data and claiming that its numbers indicate that the U.S. economy will be experiencing 'slow' growth in the next six to nine months.
The 'fast' growth that has been occurring in U.S. GDP has been based on changes in inventory levels and not an actual recovery in the private sector. In Q4 2009, a slower decline (yes decline) in inventories was responsible for approximately two-thirds of the increase in GDP. In Q1 2010, inventory replenishment accounted for more than half of the growth.
While the Credit Crisis had its origins in the U.S., the new unfolding global financial crisis is centered in Europe. There are reports that the IMF and the U.S. Treasury are in talks about a 250 billion euro bailout for Spain. While Spain and the IMF have denied the report, the market indicates some serious problem exists. The risk premium on Spanish bonds over equivalent German bonds has risen to the highest level since the creation of the euro.
Government spending can certainly make the economy or any given sector of it better for a while. Based on the evidence so far, the government has to continually spend or the economy falls right back down to where it was before the spending took place. Even reduced, but still substantial spending is not likely to be enough to keep the economy in the black under such circumstances. Governments have faced similar problems many times in history and have seen that major inflation is the outcome of utilizing this approach. Apparently the world's current regimes are now determined to make the same mistakes again.