The Mortgage Corner

Privately-owned housing starts in March were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 946,000. This is 2.8 percent above the revised February estimate of 920,000, but is 5.9 percent below the March 2013 rate of 1,005,000. Single-family housing starts in March were at a rate of 635,000; this is 6.0 percent above the revised February figure of 599,000.

We can see from the initial 2008 chart date that multifamily construction (red line) is back to pre-recession levels, but single-family starts are at 75 percent of pre-recession levels (blue line).  This mirrors the surging demand for more rental housing, which still boosts overall growth.

Single-family construction is the better barometer for home sales, since it also boosts, building design, insurance and mortgage activity, and so economic growth. And it is picking up in the spring thaw. Multifamily starts fell 6.1 percent to 292,000 units.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

Lower mortgage rates are helping, as refinance mortgage applications jumped 7 percent, and purchase applications are up 1 percent in the latest MBA applications survey. It’s because the 30-yr conforming fixed rate has again dipped to as low as 3.875 percent for 1 origination point in California.

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Graph: Calculated Risk

But applications are still at post-recession lows. They have returned to 1997-98 levels, and have dropped from early 2013 levels when fixed mortgage interest rates were in the 3 percent range. It seems that QE3 did bring down interest rates sufficiently to help the housing recovery, but now applications are stuck at the low level as QE3 is being ‘tapered’. The Fed is predicted to end QE3 purchases by the end of 2014.

That leaves uncertainty about the direction interest rates into the fall and winter.  They have recently plunged because of uncertainty over the confrontation in the Ukraine, and how much sanctions might damage economic activity.  The US is saying it can’t hurt domestic growth, and the IMF has predicted a pickup in worldwide growth, but what if Putin decides to invade the Ukraine?

Then all bets are off.  But at the very least it would keep interest rates at the current low level, and so help the housing market, in particular.  It also means middle income consumers still lack the means to boost their housing purchases when rates are much higher.

Harlan Green © 2014

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