Is housing slide as bad as it looks?

The housing industry's troubles may be an indicator of a problematic recovery.

By Jim J. Jubak Aug 27, 2010 4:39PM

Jim Jubak

Based on the numbers released this week, existing-home sales may be even scarier than they look.  

Scarier than a 27% drop in July to an annual sales rate of just 3.83 million? Scarier than the lowest annual sales rate in the 15 years this number has been tracked? 

Well, yes. Because this figure suggests that all our worst fears about the housing market and the U.S. economy may be absolutely correct. And I think that interpretation of the housing numbers is a major reason that on Friday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke just about promised the Fed would go back to its policy of buying Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities to support the economy. 

The fears start with the possibility that this huge drop shows the government's recently-ended tax credit of $8,000 to home buyers didn't do a thing to actually stimulate the housing industry. 

Instead, the huge plunge suggests that any gain in sales while the stimulus was in effect came out of future sales. 

While the tax credit was in effect, peak sales of existing homes soared to a 6.49 million annual rate in November 2009. And now that the stimulus program is over, the industry faces an extended period of really low sales as it makes up for those borrowed sales. Economists had projected that sales of existing homes would fall 13% from June's 5.37 million annual pace. 

It might take quite a while to pay back that borrowing, too. The number of existing homes on the market climbed by 2.5% to 3.98 million. At the current rate of sales, that's a 12.5-month supply. (And, not surprisingly, that's the highest level of inventory since 1999, when these numbers start.)


But that's not the worst conclusion you can draw from this number. If the housing industry wasn't able to build a real recovery out of a temporary stimulus program, then maybe the economy as a whole won't be able to build a lasting recovery out of the $787 billion stimulus package passed by Congress in February 2009. 

Certainly that's a fear worth entertaining -- especially now that the effects of that $787 billion package are starting to wear off without any appreciable surge in job creation that would demonstrate that the stimulus created a self-sustaining recovery. 

In examining that fear, though, it's important to note the ways in which the much bigger total stimulus package is similar to and different from the home-buying stimulus effort.

Parts of the overall package did indeed resemble the "demand-pull" emphasis of the home-buying subsidy. The "cash-for-clunkers" car buying program, for example, pulled current sales from future sales just as it looks like the home buying-subsidy did.  

Some parts of the bigger stimulus -- such as the infrastructure spending in the package -- are clearly not demand-pull programs, but actually add to economic activity in the present without pulling from the future. 

Unfortunately, as critics of the stimulus have pointed out for a year and a half, most of the package went to tax cuts and entitlement spending. Only $275 billion, or 35% of the total, went to contracts, grants, and loans that could in even the loosest sense be called infrastructure spending. 

The good news in that category is that only 50% of that $275 billion had been paid out as of August 13, 2010, according to the web site. There is still some stimulus money in the pipeline. (In contrast, 77% of tax cuts and 63% of entitlement spending in the package have been paid out.) 

At the least, the housing numbers should revive a real debate about whether the U.S. economy needs a second stimulus -- and one that's structured to make up for the deficiencies in the original package. 

Of course, with the electoral silly season just about upon us, a serious debate about stimulus and the economy is exactly what we won't have any time soon. 

Which leaves me hoping that existing-home sales numbers aren't as bad as they seem right now. 

Jim Jubak doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this post. 

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