Thursday, February 16, 2017

Low interest Rates Boost Housing Construction

The Mortgage Corner

Housing starts returned to trend, reports the National Association of Home Builders, dropping 2.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.246 million units, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau. Multifamily production fell 10.2 percent to 423,000 units after an unusually high December 2016 reading, whereas single-family starts ticked up 1.9 percent to 823,000 units.

But year-on-year both components are very positive, up 6.2 percent for single-family homes and at a very strong 19.8 percent for multi-units. And with interest rates still at historical lows, 2017 should be a very good year for new-home starts and sales.

Graph: Calculated Risk
“Some pull back in housing production is unsurprising after an overly strong multifamily reading last month,” said NAHB Chief Economist Robert Dietz. “As we move forward in 2017, we can expect the multifamily sector to continue to stabilize and single-family production to move forward at a gradual but consistent pace.”
Regionally in January, combined single- and multifamily housing production rose 55.4 percent in the Northeast and 20 percent in the South. Starts fell by 17.9 percent in the Midwest and 41.3 percent in the West, where skyrocketing housing prices have slowed sales.

Speaking of the western region, the California Association of Realtors reports rising wages and seasonal price declines held California’s housing affordability steady in fourth-quarter 2016, even while interest rates rose moderately.

The percentage of home buyers who could afford to purchase a median-priced, existing single-family home in California in fourth-quarter 2016 remained at 31 percent, unchanged from the third quarter of 2016 but was up from 30 percent in fourth-quarter 2015, according to C.A.R.’s Traditional Housing Affordability Index (HAI).

This is the 15th consecutive quarter that the index has been below 40 percent and is near the mid-2008 low level of 29 percent. California’s housing affordability index hit a peak of 56 percent in the third quarter of 2012, when both housing prices and interest rates were lower.

I project that mortgage rates will remain low, in what is becoming an interesting anomaly. Mortgage rates have fallen of late, while Treasury bond yields have been rising in anticipation of rising inflationary pressures if Republicans do increase federal spending.

Per Market Watch, Sean Becketti, chief economist of Freddie Mac, said something unusual is going on — the 30-year mortgage isn’t moving in line with the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury, as it has for the past 46 years.  Since Dec. 29, the 30-year has dropped 17 basis points, but the yield on the 10-year bond has stayed the same, he says. “While we expect mortgage rates to fall into line with Treasury yields shortly, this just may be a year full of surprises,” he said.

Mortgage rates slipped for a second week even as they retain most of the rise since Donald Trump was elected president, but not much. The 30-year fixed conforming rate is still at 3.75 percent for 1 origination point, 4.0 percent with no origination points.

Why? Banks are flush with cash and investors are snapping up mortgage-backed securities in search of higher yields. And while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac continue as US Treasury wards, they provide as much security as Treasury bonds, but with a much better yield.

Just do the numbers—30-year Treasury yields have hovered around 3 percent, vs. 3.75 to 4 percent yields on Fannie and Freddie mortgage-backed securities.But the future of Fannie and Freddie are not certain. New Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he would like to see the GSEs privatized. Economists have predicted that if that happened it could raise mortgage rates from 0.4 to as much as 1 percent.

That’s how valuable even an implicit government guarantee of such securities means, since banks would demand higher yields to be part of such a market. And let us not even try to imagine what life would be like for homeowners if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac disappeared. They are responsible for more than 60 percent of all home mortgage originations at present.

Harlan Green © 2017

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