New Home Sales Continue to Improve in November 2011

by John Lounsbury and Steven Hansen

Let us start with perspective – new home sales are less than 1/4 of the peak values seen in 2005 – and are running at levels last seen in the 1970’s (non seasonally adjusted data). But still, the last 6 months have been stronger than 2010 sales.

US Census Headlines for November 2011:

  • sales up 1.6% month-over-month
  • year-over-year sales up 9.8%

Econintersect Analysis:

  • sales up 1.3% month-over-month
  • year-over-year sales up 10.0%
  • three month rolling average 6.2% over 2010

As the data is noisy (large monthly variations) – it would be best to view new home sales growth using a three month moving average.

The headlines of the data release:

Sales of new single-family houses in November 2011 were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 315,000, according to estimates released jointly today by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This is 1.6 percent (±12.2%)* above the revised October rate of 310,000 and is 9.8 percent (±19.5%)* above the November 2010 estimate of 287,000.

The median sales price of new houses sold in November 2011 was $214,100; the average sales price was $242,900. The seasonally adjusted estimate of new houses for sale at the end of November was 158,000. This represents a supply of 6.0 months at the current sales rate.

Caveats on Use of New Home Sales Data

This data is compiled by sampling, and historically has little revision:

First, an estimate is made monthly of the number of housing units for which building permits are issued in all 19,000 permit-issuing places as described above.

Second, for each permit selected in the 900 permit-issuing places, an inquiry is made of the owner or the builder to determine if the house was already sold or is for sale. If already sold, the month and year the house covered by the permit was sold is obtained. In case the unit authorized by a permit in a particular month is for sale, follow-ups are made in successive months to find out when the unit is actually sold.

Ratios are calculated (by type of structure) of the number of units authorized by permits, based on the Building Permits Survey to the number of units authorized by permits based on estimates generated from the 900 SOC permit offices…..

As in most US Census reports, Econintersect does not agree with the seasonal adjustment methodology used and provides an alternate analysis. The issue is that the exceptionally large recession and subsequent economic roller coaster has caused data distortions that become exaggerated when the seasonal adjustment methodology uses several years of data. Further, Econintersect believes there may be a New Normal seasonality and using data prior to the end of the recession for seasonal analysis could provide the wrong conclusion.

Econintersect determines the month-over-month change by subtracting the current month’s year-over-year change from the previous month’s year-over-year change.  This is the best of the bad options available to determine month-over-month trends – as the preferred methodology would be to use multi-year data (but the New Normal effects and the Great Recession distort historical data).

With new home sales at 25% of past rates, whatever your interpretation of the new home sales data is not significant enough to matter. Also the data is distorted by the first home buyer’s stimulus which required contract signing before 30 April 2010 – causing a data bubble and subsequent trough. [note graph below updated through October 2011]

The broad bottoming process for new home sales in 2010 may not be confirmed or denied for another year or more. The critical factor will be whether the one-year positive trend can continue as year-over-year comparisons will no longer be against the very low sales after the collapse of the tax credit stimulus micro-bubble.

In spite of Econintersect‘s reservations about the efficacy of seasonal adjustment at the present time, it is interesting to look at the deep history of the seasonally adjusted data, as is done in the following graph from Calculated Risk.

The seasonally adjusted new home sales rate is the lowest it has been for 50 years and has been at that level for almost two years. At the beginning of 1963 the U.S. population was around 188 million. With annual new home sales averaging around 550,000 per year in 1963, the extreme depression in the new home market is evident. In 1963 the rate of new home sales was about 290,000 per 100 million of population. In 2011 the number is about 100,000 per 100 million.

It is more informative to look at these changes over the nearly fifty-year history. The following graph shows new home sales normalized to population from from St, Louis Fed (graph updated through October 2011):

The same data is plotted below to include the average for the entire period and two moving averages (graph updated through October 2011):

The bottom line is that the new home market is in an extreme depression and the apparent bottoming process has been dragging on for two years, if in fact the bottom has been reached. Recent review of the Fed 2011 stress tests for banks has a new recession scenario that would see home prices decline another 20% from here. It is unlikely that the attempts to complete a bottom here could hold under those conditions. Econintersect analysis of recession indicators is still not seeing the start of new U.S. recession, however. We can only hope that outlook continues.

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2 replies on “New Home Sales Continue to Improve in November 2011”

  1. John, Steven, one thing you did not mention, that [email protected] did, is the fact that even AFTER these few months of slight improvement, this year is headed to be not only worse than last year, but the worst numbers, ever.

    How, precisely, is THAT progress?

    Have either of you ever watched a puck “skittle” across the ice?
    One side up, one side down, everything going round n round?
    Goalies hate them.
    They are, like lovers, unpredictable; and hard to catch or stop.

    As good as this analysis is, and it is very, very good…
    you have not disproven my thesis – this is an “L” shaped recovery.

    No jobs means no money, no money means to no ability to buy “stuff”.

    However, those who still have jobs may now feel secure enough that they will not loose their job, and believe that they now CAN buy a different home – nicer or less expensive but the same.

    May not be quicksand, but it still is very mucky.

  2. Good day JGB,

    Calculated Risk is correct, this likely will be the worst year since this series began. The worst year to date was 2010 with 322,000 new home sales. With one month to go, 2011 is at 281,000 through November – and December is unlikely to be higher than 30,000.

    however, there is NO stimulus (first home buyers credit) in 2011, and the growth rate for the last 5 months have been above 2010 levels. Econintersect is focusing on the glass half full – not the glass half empty (as the recent trends are showing recovery, not decline).

    The overall economic recovery has been a L – it is a new normal reset. i personally am worried of contagion coming from a banking crisis in Europe (and not from a European recession).

    new residential construction is a gdp builder. i am NOT a fan of GDP as a measure for joe sixpack. i worry about employment – and this is my article published today. i want to see the government relax its rules ONLY on small business to try look for ways to accelerate jobs growth.


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