U.S. Homebuilder Sentiment Tumbles to Weakest in Three Years

(Bloomberg) -- Sentiment among U.S. homebuilders fell in December to the lowest level since 2015, missing all forecasts and signaling that the industry’s struggles are intensifying amid elevated prices and higher borrowing costs.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index dropped to 56 from 60 in the prior month amid broad-based declines across sales, expectations and buyer traffic, data released Monday showed. The median estimate in Bloomberg’s survey had called for it to hold at 60. With November’s eight-point decrease, it was the biggest two-month decline since October 2001.

U.S. Homebuilder Sentiment Tumbles to Weakest in Three Years

Key Insights

  • The waning optimism among builders underscores concern that housing -- an industry that’s sensitive to borrowing costs -- is at risk of slipping into a more pronounced slowdown. The Federal Reserve is widely projected to raise interest rates this week for the fourth time in 2018; borrowing costs recently hit a seven-year high after years of strong property-price gains.
  • The decline in builder sentiment follows a report earlier on Monday that showed a sharp slowdown in business at New York-area factories. The New York Fed’s Empire State manufacturing index tumbled in December to a 19-month low, adding to signs U.S. economic growth is moderating and bolstering the case for the central bank to be more cautious on interest-rate hikes next year.
  • A gauge of the NAHB six-month sales outlook dropped to the lowest since March 2016 while a measure of current sales for single-family homes decreased to a three-year low. That suggests demand will remain soft as there’s still a shortage of affordably-priced listings, in addition to property values that have been outpacing wage gains.
  • The report comes a day before the government’s November reading on building permits, an indication of future construction, which were probably little changed from the prior month. Housing starts, the rate at which builders break ground on new homes, also are projected to stagnate. On Wednesday, a separate report is forecast to show existing-home sales cooled to just above the slowest pace since 2015.
  • While the overall index has increased in just two months this year, housing is still getting support from a strong job market, tax cuts and improving household finances. In addition, mortgage rates have stabilized recently, and applications for home-purchase loans have increased for four straight weeks.

What Our Economists Say...

We expect affordability to continue to weigh on the housing market as long as price growth exceeds wage growth. Yet tightening conditions in the labor market should boost wages, while rising rates should slow house-price growth -- easing affordability concerns and potentially providing a boost to demand in the latter part of next year.

-- Tim Mahedy and Carl Riccadonna, Bloomberg Economics (read the full note here)

Official’s View

“We are hearing from builders that consumer demand exists, but that customers are hesitating to make a purchase because of rising home costs,” NAHB Chairman Randy Noel, a custom-home builder from Louisiana, said in a statement. “However, recent declines in mortgage interest rates should help move the market forward in early 2019.”

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  • A gauge of prospective buyer traffic fell to 43, the lowest since March 2016; it’s another sign that would-be buyers are getting turned off by the reduced affordability.
  • Three of four geographic regions showed a decline, led by the Northeast, where sentiment plunged by the most since June 2010. A federal cap on state and local property-tax deductions has hit the region hard: Of the 10 U.S. counties with the highest tax burden, nine are in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.
    • Builder sentiment in the Northeast declined to 37 from 52. The Midwest dropped to 52 while the South decreased to 61. The gauge for the West held at 65.
  • Readings over 50 indicate more builders view conditions as good than poor.

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