The Mortgage Corner

In another sign that this could be a better growth year, builder confidence in the market for newly built, single-family homes rose two points to 55 on the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) for August, and housing starts surged. This third consecutive monthly gain brings builder optimism to its highest level since January, and housing starts to the highest level in 8 months.

And housing has been the missing component of GDP growth since the end of the Great Recession, which is another sign that 3 percent plus GDP growth is in the cards for the rest of this year and maybe next year as household formation (mainly the millennial generation of 18 to 36 year-olds finally leaving home) returns to normal levels.

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Graph: Wrightson ICAP

All three HMI components posted gains in August. The indices gauging current sales conditions and expectations for future sales each rose two points to 58 and 65, respectively. The index gauging traffic of prospective buyers increased three points to 42.

"Each of the three components of the HMI registered consecutive gains for the past three months, which is a positive sign that builder confidence appears to be firming following an uneven spring," said NAHB Chief Economist David Crowe. "Factors contributing to this rise include sustained job growth, historically low mortgage rates and affordable home prices, which are helping to unleash pent-up demand."

Based in part on the strength in the NAHB index last month, Wrightson ICAP, a leading financial market data provider, expects a third straight solid increase in single-family building permits in today’s July report. Today’s NAHB data suggest that the uptrend in permits will continue into August.

And sure enough, U.S. housing starts jumped 15.7 percent in July, hitting the highest level in eight months. The 1.09 million annual rate of new housing starts topped economist expectations of 975,000. And permits for new construction, a sign of future demand, rose 8.1 percent to an annual rate of 1.05 million from 973,000 in June.

Some lenders are getting around the tight lending conditions and higher risk fees imposed by the Fed on conventional mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, in particular. For instance, they are beginning to offer interest only mortgages again, though borrowers have to be qualified at the fully amortized interest rate, rather than the lower interest only payment.

And, the July 2014 Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey on Bank Lending Practices showed a continued easing of lending standards and terms for many types of loan categories amid a broad-based pickup in loan demand. “Although many banks reported having eased standards for prime residential real estate (RRE) loans,” said the report, “respondents generally indicated little change in standards and terms for other types of loans to households.”

However, a few large banks had eased standards, increased credit limits, and reduced the minimum required credit score for credit card loans. Banks also reported having experienced stronger demand over the past three months, on net, for many more loan categories than on the April survey.

The good news, though, was that many of the new Quality Mortgage standards imposed by the CPFB (i.e., 43 percent maximum debt-to-income ratios, no interest only provisions) don’t apply to GSE guaranteed mortgages, if they meet the stricter conforming underwriting criteria.

What all this means is that banks are willing to lend again, which should put some of that cash savings’ hoard back to work that is held by banks and wealthy individuals. Market Watch’s Rex Nutting has reported on this extensively.

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Graph: Marketwatch

“The majority of Americans are doing their patriotic bit, spending nearly everything they earn,” writes Nutting. “ A recent report from the Fed showed that little more than a third of families are able to save any money at all after they pay their bills each month. More than 60 percent say they couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency without borrowing or pawning something.”

The bottom line is that most people are saving next to nothing, while just a few are saving a large amount of their personal disposable income (i.e., after taxes). A recent bankrate.com survey found that the top 1 percent save some 36 percent of their income, whereas the overall personal savings rate for all Americans is still not much more the 4 percent.

It speaks to the unequal income distribution since the end of the Great Recession, with lower and middle class income earners actually losing income—in part due to the housing bust—and those able to profit from the rise in financial markets garnering almost 100 percent of the income gain since then. Those who do save are saving a ton — more than $1.2 trillion a year of the $10.8 trillion held in financial assets, rather than invested in productive capacity.

Harlan Green © 2014

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