Is the U.S. housing market truly at a turning point, as investors seem to increasingly believe? Or is this actually a false dawn, meaning that there are problems and pain ahead for those who turned bullish too soon?
New home sales jumped almost 10% in July, while the Case-Shiller home price index rose for the second successive month. Yet luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers lost $493 million in the quarter ending July 31, considerably worse than analysts had expected.
Housing stocks are certainly acting as if a recovery must be on the way. Pulte Homes Inc. (NYSE: PHM) has more than doubled from its low. Toll Brothers Inc. (NYSE: TOL) is up around 70% from its bottom. D.R. Horton Enterprises (NYSE: DHI) is up almost four times from its bottom. Lennar Corp. (NYSE: LEN) is up about 4½ times from its low. Finally, Hovnanian Enterprises Inc. (NYSE: HOV) is up almost tenfold from its low after a flirtation with bankruptcy. Yet all of these companies are still racking up quarterly losses, according to their most recently released earnings reports.
In terms of house prices, it would seem unlikely that a bear market bottom has been reached. Yes, the average house price is now back down around its long-term average of about 3.2 times average earnings, or only a little above it. But history suggests that markets don't bottom at their average valuation: In fact, after such a huge excess to the upside, they overshoot on the downside.
The Case-Shiller 20-cities index is still 42% above its January 2000 level, having outpaced inflation during the last 9½ years. Yet January 2000 was not the bottom of a housing depression - far from it, in fact. That was actually close to the top of the dot-com bubble, when valuations of all assets were at all-time highs. So an average price over the whole country that - even now - remains 42% above the average price recorded at the very top of a huge economic boom does not seem like a market bottom to me.
You also have to remember that the U.S. federal government is hugely subsidizing the market. Interest rates are artificially low, and the U.S. Federal Reserve has bought more than $1 trillion worth of housing debt. Fannie Mae (NYSE: FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE: FRE) have been rescued by the government, and provided with more than $100 billion of taxpayer capital. And Ginnie Mae (the Government National Mortgage Association), directly a government agency, has provided almost $1 trillion of mortgages that require a 3% down payment.
And that's not all.
The government is spending additional billions helping homeowners avoid foreclosure. First-time buyers are given a tax credit of $8,000 towards the down payment on their house - this credit currently runs out on December 1. So the current overall market bottom is propped up artificially. Even if the proposed tax-credit extension is approved, at some point, those props will be removed.
In individual cities, the picture is somewhat brighter. Phoenix and Las Vegas prices are less than 10% above their 2000 levels, having been halved from their respective peaks. In those markets, house prices may truly be reaching a bottom, although the overhang of foreclosures after such a huge drop may make recovery slow. At the other extreme, Detroit housing is 30% cheaper than in 2000, a testimony to the awful economic environment there, with the bankruptcies of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC.
Again, with the government bailouts of both companies, there may be something of a recovery in the local housing market.
Probably the best prospects, however, are in Denver and Dallas, where prices are about 20% above their 2000 level, roughly in line with the increase in consumer prices during that same period. However, the local economies are strongly based on natural resources, particularly oil, whose price is triple its 2000 level. With prices in Dallas and Denver down only about 10% from their 2000 peaks, a true recovery in those cities may be near.
At the opposite extreme are the metropolitan "Big Three" of Los Angeles, New York and Washington, where prices are 61%, 71% and 74% above their 2000 levels, respectively.
Washington will be fine, of course: The Obama administration's spending-and-legislation plans have attracted yet another huge influx of bureaucrats, lobbyists and lawyers, all of which will boost the housing market to new highs. With New York you have to worry about all the financial-services jobs being lost as a result of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
From a nationwide standpoint, the most likely path for the housing market is for a modest recovery, with some later slippage as subsidies are removed. Housing is likely destined to once again become a highly regional market, as it always was prior to the 2001-2006 market boom, with the cycles in each market being very different.
As for homebuilding stocks, they appear to already be discounting a recovery in their businesses that may well be years away. Selling at well above net asset value (NAV), with Price/Earnings (P/E) ratios that are infinite because the companies continue to lose money, shares of homebuilders represent a very poor value, indeed.
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