Market Update-July/Aug 2013

Fed Chairman Settles Mortgage Markets After sprinting a full percentage higher over the past two months, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage has finally taken a breather. Last week, the bellwether loan was staid, holding near the prior week's rate. This week, the rate actually fell a few basis points. Lending markets have finally settled down, and for this we can thank Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who assured credit-market participants the Fed is unlikely to taper QE3 in the near future. This means the Fed will continue to purchase long-term U.S. Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. In short, mortgage rates have likely plateaued for the near future, which gives frantic buyers some breathing room. The interesting lesson in the mortgage-rate surge is that it failed to materially impact the purchase market. Indeed, the four-week purchase-application trend held steady. What's more, the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association show purchase applications actually rose 1% last week. Purchase applications are obviously related to home sales and building activity. On the latter, there's concern rising rates could translate into falling activity because of falling consumer demand. The latest data on housing starts, released Wednesday, raised a few eyebrows, and a few concerns. Housing starts were down significantly, dropping 9.9% to 836,000 units on an annualized basis in June. After the news was released, we ran across a number of comments forecasting the end of the housing recovery. Upon closer inspection, though, it appears housing's imminent demise was highly exaggerated. We say that because the drop in starts was lead by the smaller and more volatile multifamily component, which declined 26.2% in June after rising 28.2% in May. In contrast, the larger and more stable single-family component slipped a modest 0.8% for the month after rising 0.5% in May. It's informative to consider the longer-term starts trend; by this measure, the residential construction industry looks quite healthy. Over the first half of 2013, multifamily starts are up nearly 34% from the same year-ago period, while single family starts are up 20%. These are meaningful increases in activity and tell us we've come a long way in a short time. Moreover, there is plenty of room left to run. Starts remain low when viewed from a historical perspective. From 1959 through 2000, roughly 1.5 million housing units were started annually. (And keep in, the population was meaningful smaller back then.) So, yes, we've come a long way on residential construction, but we still have long way to go. This suggests that housing will remain healthy and will remain a key economic driver for at least the next couple years. And even if mortgages continue to climb, we think that's unlikely to change.