Consumer confidence and business spending are key to whether the U.S. housing market will move into a virtuous or a vicious cycle in 2011, NAR Chief Economist Lawrence Yun told a packed audience at the Residential Economic Outlook Forum Friday in New Orleans.
After the downturn, the housing market has clawed its way back to a point of near stability, Yun said, with the pace of new foreclosures easing, sales moving toward historically normal levels and prices on a national basis gaining modestly.
At the same time, affordability remains strong. He said all of the price excesses from the housing bubble have been squeezed out. In San Diego, for example, buyers today would pay $1,564 a month in mortgage payments for a house that at the height of the boom would have cost them $2,833 a month.
The broader economy is also showing positive signs, with businesses enjoying strong profits, sitting on huge cash reserves, and even adding jobs. Yun predicts this positive trend to continue into 2011, with existing home sales reaching 5.5 million units, prices rising a modest 1 percent, and the U.S. gross domestic product increasing to about 2.5 percent.
“We are entering a virtuous cycle,” he said. But for the positive trend to continue, he added, businesses will have to start spending some of their cash to fuel job growth at a far greater pace than they’re doing now. Currently, businesses are adding jobs at a pace of about 100,000 a month. That needs to grow to about 400,000 a month for unemployment
to start shrinking.
The scenario will be far more negative if businesses continue to sit on their cash. In that case, sales will fall, inventories will rise, the high rate of foreclosures will resume, and the cost to the federal government of bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will surge.
Federal Reserve Governor Thomas Koenig, who shared the data with Yun, said the Fed’s continued effort to spur the economy, most recently through a $600 billion bond buying program, is understandable given concerns over the slow pace of growth. But the continued subsidization of the market could unleash inflationary forces.
Yun said he sees possible evidence of inflation building, but it’s not visible now because the housing-cost portion of inflation measurements is holding down prices.
—Rob Freedman, REALTOR® Magazine