When Will We Pull Out of the Doldrums?
Last week, we referenced the movie Groundhog Day, because things continually feel the same. We're not moving backward, but we're not moving noticeably forward either.
Much of the recent economic data support our contention. The Federal Reserve's “beige book,” a compendium of data and Fed officials' interpretation of the data, points to tepid economic growth. Words like “modest” and “moderate” show up frequently in the text released this past week.
Home builders also continue to feel rather “moderate.” The NAHB/Wells Fargo Home Builder Sentiment Index posted at 47 for April. Fifty is considered breakeven, the point where sentiment tilts either positively or negatively. Right now it's tilting negatively.
At least housing starts picked up in March. Starts rose 2.8% to a 946,000 annual rate, lead by single-family starts, which jumped 6%. Unfortunately, the increase failed to live up to expectations. The consensus estimate was for starts to increase to 970,000 on an annualized rate. The positive takeaway is that single-family starts are gaining momentum.
We expect to see starts ramp up going forward. Weather in the first three months of 2014 had been atypically lousy. Indeed, the Federal Reserve referred to weather no fewer than 103 times in the beige book. With weather a less influential factor, perhaps we'll see a pick up in housing activity.
As for interest rates, they continue to be priced for sluggish economic activity. On the mortgage front, rates were down again this past week. Bankrate.com's survey has the 30-year fixed-rate loan priced at 4.43%; Freddie Mac has it priced at 4.27%, which is a six-week low.
The upside is that lower rates have reignited activity: The Mortgage Bankers Association reports refinances were up 7% for its most recent reported week. Just as important, purchase applications were up 1%. Purchase activity has been up every week for the past month.
Gains in purchase activity have been incremental, to be sure, but it appears a budding trend is taking hold. Ellie Mae's Origination Insight Report states that 40% of mortgage loans closed in March were originated for refinancing, while 60% were for home purchases. In February, the split was 43% for refinances and 57% for purchases.
FICO scores were another telling data point. Ellie Mae's numbers point to easing credit standards, a trend we've seen, and one that goes under-reported and under-appreciated. We've mentioned a few times over the past couple months that the perception of getting a mortgage loan differs from the reality. The perception is that it's difficult; the reality is that's not really so.
With any luck, the trends we see in the credit market will portend a step-up in economic growth. Credit generally becomes easier to come by when the economy is improving. Let's hope that's the case.
How to Become a World-Class Decision Maker
To make good decisions, one must be grounded in reality. Unfortunately, most people aren't grounded in reality.
The problem centers on the past. People anchor to sunk costs, which are past costs. We've seen this with home prices and mortgage rates.
People will automatically assume that past prices and past rates have to reappear in the future. That's not necessarily true. Just because a home sold for $400,000 in 2006 and sells for $350,000 today doesn't mean $400,000 will reappear. The same goes for the 3.5% 30-year fixed-rate loan. It was here once, but that doesn't mean it will be here again. The focus should be on where things are going from here forward.
Making good decisions requires thinking on the margin. For example, if you had a $50 ticket to a football game and lost that ticket, would you still attend the game? Many people wouldn't attend because they view the ticket as now costing $100 instead of $50 – the cost of the lost ticket and the cost of the ticket that would need to be purchased.
But that's the irrational way of looking at it. The rational way is to ask, “Am I willing to spend $50 to attend the game?” The first ticket is a gone, so it shouldn't factor in the decision. For most people, it does.
Similarly, we see people anchor to home prices or mortgage rates that no longer exist. It's always important to let our clients know that the prices that prevailed in the past shouldn't influence today's decision. What matters is what today's data lead us to believe for the future. This sounds like a simple concept, but it's one few people grasp.