MacroScope

U.S. new home sales: the good, the bad and the ugly

What’s happening with the U.S. housing market?

Ask three different economists and you’ll get three different answers.

While that’s not anything new, the different ways some analysts have spun the surprise — one of the biggest on U.S. data in many months — is exceptionally far from anything resembling a consensus.

New home sales – a leading indicator for housing – plummeted by 14.5 percent in March, totally wrong-footing the Reuters consensus of forecasters. They were expecting modest improvement after a decidedly poor winter for the U.S. economy on nearly all measures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s how some of them explained away the data.

 

The good

“Based on the data, it is easy to conclude that housing demand is rolling over, perhaps due to higher mortgage rates. Yet, this conclusion is out of synch with home prices which continue to appreciate rapidly and indeed show no sign of slowing. We believe that the answer to these seemingly diverging trends lies on the supply side. Measured as a percentage of the housing stock, total housing inventory – including shadow or pending supply – stands at the lowest level since 2005, when the housing boom was in full swing. While inventory shortages may be curtailing sales, they are unambiguously positive for residential construction and for the broader economy going forward.” – Aneta Markowska and Brian Jones, Societe Generale

 

The bad

“Very weak results, with new home sales down 14.5% to a 384,000 unit annual rate.  It’s hard to make much sense out of the recent pattern of these data as currently reported.  January sales in the worst of the winter weather were revised up to 470,000, a six-year high, and supposedly since surging to a cycle high during the polar vortex, sales have now plummeted 18% in the past two months as the weather has improved and mortgage rates have moved a bit lower.  Low supplies of homes for sale probably contributed to softer recent sales and boosted prices, but much of the recent volatility in sales is likely sampling noise, and a record increase in prices mostly resulted from a large shift in the mix of homes sold.  This data point should be discounted, in our view, but on an underlying basis housing does seem to be a notable lagging area as other parts of the economy show signs of broadly improving with the weather, with credit and inventory issues in the West weighing on home sales in recent months.” – Ted Wieseman, Morgan Stanley

 

The ugly

“New home sales are a leading indicator for the housing market, as sales are counted when contracts are signed, not when a closing takes place.  With inventory at a three and a half year high, prices at all-time highs, and sales plummeting, something has to give.  There are two short-term options:  credit standards loosen in order to boost sales (sound familiar?) or prices fall as supply and demand find equilibrium.  The third option, and most likely, is a combination of the two.  In this case, expect moderate sales to continue, but anyone who was counting on housing to spur the economy will be disappointed.” -- Jay Morelock, FTN Financial

Will French numbers add up?

French President Francois Hollande’s cabinet meets to adopt a new debt reduction plan.

After outlining 50 billion euros of savings for 2015-2017 to help pay for consumer and business tax cuts, the government is due to sign off on already delayed deficit reductions to bring it, eventually, to three percent of output as demanded by Brussels.

The European Commission has taken a dim view of any further relaxation, having previously granted Paris two years extra leeway. The French government insists it will meet its targets but appears to be trying to deliver one message to Brussels and another to its electorate, with domestic politics likely to hold sway.

Five days on, Ukraine accord at risk of unravelling

An international agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine, brokered only five days ago, is teetering with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings and Kiev and Moscow trading accusations over who was responsible for killings over the weekend.

Washington, which signed last week’s accord in Geneva along with Moscow, Kiev and the European Union, said it would decide “in days” on additional sanctions if Russia does not take steps to implement the agreement. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Kiev where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance.

So far, markets’ worst fears have not materialized but with thousand of Russian troops massed on the frontier with Ukraine and deadly clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, it would not take much to change that.

Deconstructing UK job numbers

On the face of it, the good news for the British government keeps on coming. Britain’s economy grew surprisingly fast last year and inflation fell below the Bank of England’s target for the first time in over four years in January. The government this month even got a nod from the International Monetary Fund which only last year criticized its austerity programme.

The latest confidence boost came from jobless figures on Wednesday. Not only did the unemployment rate fall to a five-year low of 6.9 percent but pay growth caught up with  inflation for the first time in nearly four years. That provides Prime Minister David Cameron’s government with another lift ahead of the 2015 elections, after it has come  under fire from the Labour opposition for overseeing a fall in living standards.

But a closer look at the data suggests a more nuanced picture.

Indeed, total pay growth in February reached 1.7 percent – matching the 1.7 percent rise in consumer prices in February and above their 1.6 percent increase in March.

Euro will rally further, say the most accurate FX forecasters

The euro will rise even more, according to some of the top foreign exchange strategists who accurately predicted resilience in the common currency over the past year.

If it does, policymaking will get even tougher for Mario Draghi and the European Central Bank, who are already grappling with inflation at a four-year low and well below the bank’s target.

In 2013, the euro was the best performer among the majors, gaining almost five percent against the dollar, wrong-footing the consensus view in Reuters polls during that period.

Greeks bearing bonds

Greece will sell its first bond in four years.

We know it will aim to raise up to 2.5 billion euros of five-year paper via syndication and wants to pay less than 5.3 percent – remarkable since only two years ago it was tipped to crash out of the euro zone and yields on 10-year debt peaked above 40 percent on the secondary market. They dropped below six percent for the first time since 2010 on Wednesday.

Athens has no pressing funding needs but wants to test the waters as part of its strategy to cover all its financing from the market by 2016. It still has a mountain to climb and may well need more debt relief from its EU partners to corral a national debt that is not falling much from 175 percent of GDP. 

But for all that, it’s a propitious time to borrow. Peripheral euro zone bond yields have tumbled this year, benefiting from wobbles in emerging markets, and now European Central Bank consideration of printing money has given bond prices a further lift.

A question of gas

Vladimir Putin will meet senior Russian government officials to discuss Russia’s economic ties with Ukraine, including on energy after state-controlled natural gas producer Gazprom said Kiev missed a deadline to pay a $2.2 billion bill.

In previous years, gas disputes between Moscow and Kiev have hurt supplies to Europe. The Ukraine government has said it would take Russia to an arbitration court if Moscow failed to roll back gas price hikes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian agents and special forces of stirring separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could be trying to prepare for military action as it had in Crimea. Armed pro-Moscow protesters occupied Ukrainian government buildings in two cities in the largely Russian-speaking east.

Ukraine inching back to the brink

Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine took up arms in one city and declared a separatist republic in another yesterday and the new build-up of tensions continues this morning.

The Kiev government has launched what it calls “anti-terrorist” operations in the eastern city of Kharkiv and arrested about 70 separatists. Moscow has responded by demanding Kiev stop massing military forces in the south-east of the country.

Russia’s own forces remain massed just over the border and Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov said Moscow was attempting to repeat “the Crimea scenario”.

To QE or not to QE?

ECB Vice-President Vitor Constancio testifies to the European Parliament prior to attending the IMF Spring meeting in Washington at the back end of the week along with Mario Draghi and other colleagues. Jens Weidmann, Yves Mersch and Ewald Nowotny also speak today.

There has undoubtedly been a change in tone from the ECB, which is now openly talking about printing money if inflation stays too low for too long (no mention of deflation being the required trigger any more). Even Bundesbank chief Weidmann has done so.

Last week, Draghi made it sound as if really serious thought was being given to how to do it. He raised the prospect of buying private sector assets, rather than government bonds as other central banks have. The question is whether he is trying to talk the euro down or whether the central bank is now more alarmed, and therefore deadly serious.

Good news for Greece?

Unemployment is sky high, national debt is not far short of double the size of an economy which is still shrinking and its ruling coalition has a wafer-thin majority, yet there are glimmers of hope in Greece.

Having finally struck a deal with the EU and IMF to keep bailout loans flowing, Athens is preparing to dip its toe back into the bond market with a five-year bond for up to 2 billion euros.

The government has not said when the syndicated issue might be launched but having mandated banks for the sale the likelihood is sooner rather than later. It’s a remarkably quick return two years after a debt restructuring which was essentially a default.