No Housing Recovery in Sight

by: John M. Mason

Households, as a group, are gaining ground financially, but are still far below where they were in 2007. This, along with other weaknesses in the economy, is going to continue to contribute to the weakness in the economic recovery now taking place.

One place this weakness is particularly evident is in the housing sector. The recovery of the housing market helped to lead the economy out of every previous recession in the post-World War II period. In the recent experience, this has not been the case, even with special incentive programs created by the federal government to spur along a rebound.

The figure on housing starts in May 2010, an annual rate of 593,000, confirmed this continued weakness.

The recession ended in July 2009, yet housing starts have hovered around a 600,000 unit annual rate ever since. The highest figure recorded during this time period was an annual rate of 659,000 in April of this year, but the pace dropped off once again in May.

At this time, Americans are just not in a position to acquire housing. If we look at the financial position of United States households since the year 2007, according to the Flow of Funds accounts released by the Federal Reserve, the net worth of households has decline by slightly less than $10 trillion. Year-over-year, from the first quarter of 2009 through the first quarter of 2010, household net worth has risen by a little more than $6 trillion, but almost all of this increase has been in the value of equity shares, something that is not a part of the balance sheets of Main Street America. The value of tangible assets, including the value of homes, has fallen by $5 trillion since 2007 and increased only modestly year-over-year. Again, the beneficiary of any gain here has not been Main Street America.

The plight of the American household is captured in the percentage of households owning their own home and who actually have no equity in the home they are living in. David Wessel captures this dilemma in his Wall Street Journal article this morning, “Rethinking Part of the American Dream.” He cites data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York: For example, in San Diego, 55% of households owned their own home, but the fraction of these households that had equity in their homes was between 35% and 39%; in Las Vegas, only 15% to 19% of households had equity in their homes, even though 59% of those households owned their own home. In the cities reported, Boston, Chicago, and Atlanta scored the highest in owners having equity in their own home.

And, with one out of every four or five working age people being under-employed, it is highly unlikely that there will be a stronger recovery in the housing market in the near future.

Ethan Harris of Bank of America Merrill Lynch is quoted as saying: “We’re not going to see a real recovery in the housing market until the foreclosure process gets worked out. That’s…a 2012 event.”

Delinquencies on mortgages seem to have leveled out but they still remain at a high level. Also, foreclosures remain at a high level.

The performance of loans that have been restructured remain dismal (see my post “Eventually Debt Must Be Repaid.") Sixty-five to seventy-five percent of the loans restructured in the Treasury’s loan restructuring plan “re-default.”

And banks continue to stay on the sidelines in terms of making new loans, especially mortgage loans. With one out of every eight commercial banks on the FDIC list of problem banks and many more on the edge, housing is just not going to show much bounce in upcoming months.

Households, according to the Federal Reserve data, are reducing the amount of debt outstanding, but at a relatively slow pace. This is where, I think, it is important to think about how the country is dividing along two lines, between those that are doing quite well, thank you, and those that are really struggling.

As I mentioned, the value of the financial assets of U. S. Households rose by about $5.5 billion last year, most of the increase coming in the market value of equity shares. However, those benefiting from the rise in the value of equities are generally not the ones that own a home with no equity in it. They are generally the people that are still employed and have a sufficient income. Also, they are not the ones that are in debt in a major way.

In my post on debt repayment, I quoted a report by Fitch Ratings Ltd. indicating that the individuals that were in the mortgage re-structuring program were also heavily in debt on credit cards, car loans, and other obligations. People in this second group are the ones that are excessively in debt and have neither the accumulated wealth nor the current income to pay down their debt.

It is this debt that still must be worked off before the recovery can have any bounce to it. Resolving this debt burden will also go a long way to helping the banking system regain its legs.

Consumer spending may increase modestly, housing starts may gain some, but the Americans that are in this second group will not be the ones contributing to these increases until they get their finances back in order and that may take a long time. To see this in another way, check out what is actually being purchased by consumers. Much of it is up-scale, not ordinary “stuff.”