The Mortgage Corner

Are homebuyers and borrowers finally realizing that mortgage rates might not fall much further? We are seeing a huge jump in both mortgage and builder activity, and much of the most recent interest rate drop has been because of Europe’s solvency problems, which could reverse once the uncertainty is resolved. This is in spite of still restrictive underwriting standards by the likes of Fannie Mae and Freddie.

Mortgage applications increased 23.1 percent from one week earlier (last week’s results included an adjustment for New Years Day), according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending January 13, 2012.

“Interest rates dropped last week due to continuing anxieties regarding the fragile economic situation in Europe,” said Michael Fratantoni, MBA’s Vice President of Research and Economics.  “With mortgage rates reaching new lows, refinance volume jumped and MBA’s refinance index reached its highest level in the last six months.  Purchase activity also increased as buyers returned to the market after the holiday season.”

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The Refinance Index increased 26.4 percent from the previous week to its highest level since August 8, 2011. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index increased 10.3 percent from one week earlier to its highest level since December 12, 2011.

And builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes continued to climb for a fourth consecutive month in January, rising four points to 25 on the latest NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI). This is the highest level the index has attained since June of 2007.

"Builder confidence has now risen four months in a row, with the latest uptick being universally represented across every index component and region," noted Bob Nielsen, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). "This good news comes on the heels of several months of gains in single-family housing starts and sales, and is yet another indication of the gradual but steady improvement that is beginning to take hold in an increasing number of housing markets nationwide — and that has been shown by our Improving Markets Index. Policymakers must now take every precaution to avoid derailing this nascent recovery."

Privately-owned housing starts in December were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 657,000. This is 4.1 percent below the revised November estimate of 685,000, but is 24.9 percent (±18.3%) above the December 2010 rate of 526,000.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

But Single-family starts increased 4.4 percent to 470,000 in December - the highest level in 2011, and the highest since the expiration of the tax credit. This should give a boost to 2012 growth.

Another upside surprise was signs of increased employment. For the week ending January 14, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 352,000, a decrease of 50,000 from the previous week’s revised figure of 402,000. This was the largest plunge in jobless claims in 3 years. The 4-week moving average was 379,000, a decrease of 3,500 from the previous week’s revised average of 382,500.

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So we are seeing a reason for the jump in builder confidence rising four points to 25 on the NAHB/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), as we have said.

Existing-home sales might also pick up, because of the fire-sale prices. Total housing inventory at the end of November fell 5.8 percent to 2.58 million existing homes available for sale, which represents a 7.0-month supply at the current sales pace, down from a 7.7-month supply in October.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

We know that it’s the combination of a better jobs market and even increased household formation that increases the demand for housing. Demand is increasing in spite of some 4 million homes somewhere in the foreclosure process. Maybe a key is that the younger, echo boomer generation is creating more households. Household formation has fallen drastically since 2007, so maybe this is the year when it will return to historical levels.

Harlan Green © 2012