Shiller: Tough Call On Housing Future
May 29, 2012
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A bona fide recovery in the U.S. housing market could be piercing through the heavy clouds that have kept the outlook overcast since real estate started falling apart in mid-2006. But then again, maybe not, analysts say.
Speaking on the most recent S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. Home Prices report released today, Yale University’s Prof. Robert Shiller, and Karl Case, founding partner of Fiserve Case Shiller Weiss Inc., had enough data to offer a glimmer of hope that perhaps the struggling housing market could be about to stage a recovery.
But the two, who are the brains behind the Case Shiller home price data, were also quick to point out that the mounting uncertainties—from the future of mortgage rates to the economic health in Europe—are still too many to be ignored, making forecasting what lies ahead for housing little more than a fool’s errand.
On the surface, the latest data aren’t that encouraging. Home prices in the U.S. in March were again lower on both a monthly and an annual basis, continuing to plumb new lows—even if the pace of declines is slowing, the report showed. Average home values are now the lowest they’ve been in more than six years and some 35 percent below their mid-2006 peak.
Still, prices are the last to reflect any improvement in the market, Case said in a conference call following the release of the report. Other data, such as sales volume figures, tend to improve first, and that’s already taking place, he noted.
Housing was at the center of the 2008 credit crisis that sent the U.S. economy into a recession, as poor lending practices eventually brought to light just how indebted U.S. consumers were. Many now see a recovery in housing as crucial to future economic growth in the U.S.
A Mixed Bag
Housing starts—or the supply side of the equation—are up significantly, Case said, even if they remain at their lowest level in more than half a century. Indeed, starts are more than 75 percent off their peak level seen at the height of the housing boom. But, again, they have picked up recently.
“The numbers look good, but not great relative to history,” Case said.
Other volume data on the demand side such as improving existing home sales, new home sales and foreclosure rates could also foster a glimmer of hope.
The latest Census Bureau-sponsored survey on residential vacancies show that the number of households in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2012 is up significantly as compared with the previous year, Case said. In other words, there are more households now than there were a year ago.
“Vacancies are at very low levels,” Case said. But he noted that the catch is that the number of households is growing more on the rental space than on the owner-occupied space. “Owner-occupied houses are disappearing.”
While Case argues that “we are in the process of turning around,” Shiller offers a much more subdued sense of optimism.