From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Phily Fed Survey: More of the Same

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The quarterly survey of forecasters, produced by the Philadelphia FED, is one of my regular touchstones for where the economy is headed.  One caveat — in “steady” times, they tend to be pretty accurate.  They miss black swan events, but so do everyone.

That said, they are look at annualized GDP growth of about 3% in the coming quarter and about 2.6% in the following quarter.  Job growth will decline into 2019, adding about 195,000 jobs per month this year, declining to about 165,000 next year.  However, unemployment will remain pretty much where it is.  Inflation continues to be a non-event.  These numbers pretty much make sense, if you consider there is a pretty strong tail wind.  We’ve been on a positive trend since about 2010, and in the absense of systemic shocks to the system, why worry?

I’ve noted in the past that this group of forecasters tend to be fairly… ahhh, I hate to use the word lazy, but what the heck.  They mostly work for banks and such, and so have a bit of a bias in favor of good times ahead.  That’s one of the reasons they tend to miss negative signals.  I’ve noted here in past posts that the yield curve is approaching a dangerous inverted shape (for the uninitiated, this isn’t just reading tea leaves — it tells us a lot about the expectations of borrowers and lenders).  The trade war only gets worse, and we’re seeing increasing disruptions in agriculture and manufacturing here in the U.S. as a result.  I’m not trying to be Chicken Little, but this is certainly influencing my thinking.

Written by johnkilpatrick

August 12, 2018 at 10:44 am

Need a job?

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I pulled up behind another car at a stop light yesterday and couldn’t help but notice a license plate surround for the local construction laborers union, plus a labor bumper sticker in the back window.  This attracted my attention because the vehicle in question was a late-model Cadillac Escalade.

Admittedly this may have been an outlier, but all across the U.S. there is a huge demand for entry level construction trainees.  Here in Seattle (a high-wage, high cost-of-living area) entry level “no experience, no education” wages are in the high-teens per hour, rising rapidly to $50k per year with a modicum of experience.  Take some winter months to go get trained in plumbing, electrical, or HVAC and the annual income gets into the high 5 to low 6 figures pretty quickly.  (The average plumber in Seattle makes $95,000 per year, according to Salarylist.com.)   Some sources put this number somewhat lower, but you get the point.

Ironically, these jobs are going begging, and the reasons are varied.  Many young people are scared off from a job that evidently requires a lot of outdoor work and physical stamina.  Yet, as one young woman in a carpenter training program noted, “If you work hard and you put in your effort, they’ll take you over somebody else who is muscle…” Baby boomers seem to think that if their children don’t go to college, they’ve failed as parents, and so the percentage of construction workers under age 24 has declined in 48 states since the peak of the housing boom.

Wall Street Journal has a great article this morning called “Young people don’t want construction jobs. That’s a problem for the housing market.”  It is indeed.  It is one reason why home construction per household in America is at its lowest level in 60 years of keeping records, according to the article. The reasons include lack of vocational programs in high schools, although many of these are coming back. The Home Builders Institute, affiliated with the National Association of Homebuilders, has as many as 6,000 young people in their training pipeline at any given time.

I’m not suggesting — nor is the WSJ, that flooding young people into construction jobs will change the housing affordability metric overnight.  The homebuilding industry is still replete with problems such as a trade war with our principle material suppliers, a lack of housing infrastructure, and short-term financing issues.  Nonetheless, young people might want to be reminded that a surprisingly large number of CEOs in the construction field got started with a hammer in their hands.

Written by johnkilpatrick

August 1, 2018 at 8:06 am

Home prices up, sales down

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Reuter’s reported this morning that sales of existing homes are down and prices are up.  Economists had forecasted an increase year-over-year of 0.6%, according to National Association of Realtors statistics, which would have been a pretty good jump.  In fact, sales actually fell by 2.2% from June, 2017 to June, 2018.

Sales rose in the northeast and Midwest, but fell in the west and south.  Existing home sales make up about 90% of the market (the other 10% from new homes).  As we’ve reported before, rising costs and lack of infrastructure are driving up new home prices and driving down new home availability.  This means that demand drives up prices, and ultimately drives down volume.  (This was the part of the supply/demand equilibrium lecture that drove so very many college freshmen to major in something other than economics.)  Annual wage growth has been stuck below 3% for some time now, and median house prices are now up 5.2% from last year, to a record high of $276,900.  According to NAR, this is the 76th consecutive month with year-to-year price gains.

Supply at the lower end of the market — starter homes and rental homes — dropped by 18% from last year.  This is problematic since first-time buyers accounted for 31% of all transactions in June.  However, economists estimate that in a healthy market, first-time buyers would account for a 40% market share.  All in all, these are not the signs of a healthy housing market.

Written by johnkilpatrick

July 23, 2018 at 9:03 am

Inflation outpacing wages. Fed expectations?

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Those of us who lived through the 1970’s may think that 3% or 4% inflation is childsplay, but the FED doesn’t necessarily look at it that way.  Indeed, they’re an “inflation conservative” bunch, and don’t take too kindly to the CPI heading northward.

An article this morning in CNN Money offers two painful scenarios.  First, inflation is nudging up, in no small part from housing costs and health care costs.  Add to that the impending impact of the coming Trade War, and the news isn’t very good.

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Graphic courtesy money.cnn.com

 

Second – and we’ve been predicting this – consumer prices are rising higher than wages.  The difference isn’t very big at the median, only 0.2 percentage points, but given the disparate increases in incomes in America of late, and the disparate consumptions patterns, this means that the burdens of cost inflation are being disproportionately felt by working families.

More to come….

Written by johnkilpatrick

July 13, 2018 at 6:59 am

Commercial property prices

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First, a happy 4th of July to all of our U.S. readers!  I’ve spent the day catching up on reading, writing, and napping.  I hope you’ve all done the same.

Part of my reading was a recent piece by Calvin Schnure for the members at NAREIT titled Commercial Property Prices Continue Steady Gains.  It’s an interesting read, and factually correct.  However, Mr. Schnure and I might arrive at somewhat different conclusions.  Case in point is illustrated by the graphic below, taken from his article:

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Now, if you are running a REIT and want to convince potential investors that the world is rosy, then this is a very pretty graphic. On the other hand, if you are a real estate analyst (ahem…. please hold your applause) you have to wonder what the heck is going on here.  I’m particularly concerned with multi-family, which has increased in value on the order of about 60% since the previous peak (December, 2007) but is up by something close to 160% since the trough of 8 years ago.  Yeah.  That’s a huge run-up.  Couple that with the observations (anecdotal, at present) that multi-family vacancies are on the rise nationwide, and particularly, surprisingly, in formerly hot markets like Seattle (just to name names).

I’m not preaching a long-term or even intermediate term demise for multi-family.  Far from it, in the long term, these are still worth considering.  However, in the short-term, these annualized gains may not be sustainable.

By the way, there’s a lot more in the NAREIT article, and it’s worth reading in its entirety.

Watch this space.  We’ll keep you posted.

Written by johnkilpatrick

July 4, 2018 at 5:02 pm

And yet more on housing

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Twice burned, you know?  I think we should all be a bit gun-shy about rapidly increasing house prices.  Are we looking for a bubble or a peak?

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index, reported a 6.4% annual gain in April, slightly down from an annualized rate of 6.5% in March.  While they produce a few other indices, all of them basically report the same thing.  Oh, by the way, my home city of Seattle leads the pack with an annualized rate north of 13%.

Glancing at the graphic, below, the slope of the current pricing graph looks suspiciously like what we saw during the bubble run-up.  As I’ve noted here previously, house prices increasing at a rate higher than 2 points over inflation is emblematic of a bubble.  That would suggest a nationwide rate somewhere around 4% – 5% right now.  You do the math.

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Written by johnkilpatrick

June 29, 2018 at 1:56 pm

Deconstructing house prices

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I stumbled on a very interesting graphic on the inter-web the other day.  I can’t provide the citation just yet — it was posted anonymously on a data visualization web site.  Nonetheless, I’ve done a bit of research to semi-validate these numbers, and even if they’re off a bit, it’s a very useful graphic.

First, it tells us that since 2002, the median price of a new home in America has approximately doubled, from $175,000 to about $350,000 (depending on exactly which metrics you use, this is about right).  That’s an inflation rate of about 100%, more or less, in 15 years (end of 2002 to end of 2017).  In a paper I presented at the American Real Estate Society annual meetings about 10 years ago, I noted that post-WW2 data indicated that house prices/values should be expected to grow annually at a rate of about 2 percent points above the inflation rate.  I checked, and the actual inflation rate over that period measured by the CPI totaled 36%, more or less.  That averages about 2.1% per year, compounded.  The doubling of house prices in 15 years equates to an inflation rate of about 4.7%.  So…. 4.7 minus 2.1 = 2.6.  Thus, by my estimation based on historical averages, house prices have been growing about 0.6% per year faster than they should have since 2002.

You might argue that some of that was the last few years of the housing bubble, but that sponge got squeezed out in the post-bubble collapse.  Nope, folks, what we’re seeing is the echo bubble.  You might also argue that 0.6% doesn’t sound like much, but here’s what it amounts to over time.  If house prices had actually grown at the rate suggested by previous post-WW2 data, then prices would only have gone up by about 170% over that time period.  That means that a $175,000 house from 2002 should today be selling for about $295,000.  The difference (350,000 minus 295,000) of about 17% is the measure of the echo bubble — it’s the degree to which houses are currently overpriced.

Ahem…. that’s NOT the point of this story.  That’s just the introduction.  The more important story comes from deconstructing house prices into various tranches.  This graphic I found does a wonderful job of that:

Housing Starts

Here’s my point in a nutshell. Note that in 2002, the plurality of homes built were in the “less than $200,000” category.  Today, that’s the smallest category (the one in red).  Conversely, we’re building about twice as many homes in the expensive category (the green bar) as we were in 2002. While all housing starts are down from the peak, compared to the earlier years, we’re now building the bulk of the housing in the two most expensive categories, which is a real shift from 2002.

Why?  The market is constantly screaming about the lack of supply for “affordable housing”.  Why aren’t builders building to that tranche of the market?  The answer is cost.  Two very disruptive forces are plaguing the homebuilding industry today.  First, the labor and infrastructure for building died off during the recession.  We have relatively fewer trained and skilled tradespeople, fewer developed lots (and a shrunken pipeline for development) and more expensive construction lending.  Second, the building materials themselves — lumber and steel — are in short supply, have been affected by price increases, and are now faced with tariffs.  Builders have no choice but to build more expensive homes to be able to cover the cost of construction.

Are we headed for a new bubble?  Back in the dark ages, when I was in graduate school, we were taught that inflation could be caused by either demand-pull (too much money chasing too few goods) or cost-push (increases in commodity costs).  Either way you look at it, the cost of owner-occupied housing is going thru the roof (pun intended).

Written by johnkilpatrick

June 26, 2018 at 8:14 am

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