More than five years into an unprecedented slump, the U.S. housing sector continues to languish. Pending home sales fell in April to a four-month low, while house prices continue to bounce along near recent lows. The National Association of Realtors said on Wednesday its index, based on contracts signed last month, fell 5.5 percent to 95.5, its lowest level since December, after a downwardly revised 3.8 percent increase in March. The weakness suggested other more closely watched indicators may also flag in coming weeks and months.
from Lawrence Summers:
Economic forecasters divide into two groups: those who cannot know the future but think they can, and those who recognize their inability to know the future. Shifts in the economy are rarely forecast and often not fully recognized until they have been under way for some time. So judgments about the U.S. economy have to be tentative. What can be said is that for the first time in five years a resumption of growth significantly above the economy's potential now appears as a substantial possibility. Put differently, after years when the risks to the consensus modest-growth forecast were to the downside, they are now very much two-sided.
The Fed calls it an “apparent misunderstanding.” Whatever term you prefer, a new Cleveland Fed study makes one thing clear: lenders are still overstating home values. The study focuses on real-estate-owned or REO inventory, which covers properties that are now owned by lenders.
There was something for everyone in the January existing home sales report. Bulls could point to the level of sales, which reached a 1-1/2 year high, and the decline in housing supply, long an impediment to the sector’s recovery. Bears might focus on the sharp downward revisions to prior months that suggested conditions were improving but from considerably more depressed levels.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has made clear the central bank is considering another round of monetary stimulus. Fed officials have also suggested that if they were to embark on a third round of quantitative easing via bond purchases, or QE3, they could favor mortgage-backed securities in an effort to boost housing.
Protests against Wall Street and the U.S. financial system are hanging over an annual gathering of economists and social scientists in Chicago. Yale economist Robert Shiller offered two cheers for capitalist finance, saying that while the U.S. free market system has contributed to higher living standards, the vehemence of the recent public outcry points to a need for greater democratization. This is how he put it in a speech:
As 2011 draws to an unspectacular close, U.S. economic data are sending thoroughly mixed messages about the near-term path of the recovery. That’s not particularly reassuring given the still enormous risks emanating from Europe – but it’s better than the unequivocal weakness that prevailed during the first half of the year.
Surprise! There’s some life in housing after all. U.S. construction starts and building permits jumped to a 1-1/2 year high in November as demand for rental apartments rose, suggesting a downtrodden housing market may be entering a tentative recovery. But will this be another in a long string of bottom-bounces? Or is it the start of a trend?