Rates Hold, Home Sales Picking Up

Mortgage Rates have managed to survive some significant volatility in both the equity and bond markets over the past week to remain at 5.50% for thirty-year, fixed-rates. Stocks reacted positively last week after some better than expected initial corporate earnings but have since pulled back on more sober earnings reports and a second monthly decline in consumer confidence. Bond market volatility has been driven by a reaction to stocks along with a massive $200 billion government debt auction this week.

It is expected that the Chinese and others will readily buy up this new debt but concerns linger as to how much of an appetite they will have in the long run as the Federal Reserve raises an unprecedented amount of cash to pay for stimulus and the purchase of mortgage-backed securities. As I have discussed before, it is this delicate balance between the issuance of new government bonds, creating excessive supply, and the purchase of mortgage-backed securities, to create demand, that has managed to keep rates low thus far. If bond prices can hold up through this week we should see reduced volatility and perhaps a slight dip in rates next week.

Last Friday the National Association of Realtors released June existing home sales figures that, while showing an increase of 3.6%, also showed prices of existing homes were 15.4% lower than in June of 2008. Still, the 3.6% increase in sales was slightly better than the 3.4% most economists had expected. On an even more positive note, the government said on Monday that new home sales rose by a whopping 11% in June to a seasonally adjusted 384,000 homes. And while that was still 21% below the same month last year, it still easily beat economists’ forecasts of 352,000 new homes sold.

Perhaps the best news of the week came on Tuesday when the Case-Shiller index of home prices was released for May showing that home values rose on a monthly basis for the first time in nearly three years. The .50% increase was the first month-over-month increase since July of 2006. The Case-Shiller index also showed that home prices for May were off some 17.1% in the 20 major markets but May also marked the fourth straight month where the year-over-year decline lessened in those markets.

I have been reporting a lot of real estate statistics over the past eight months and what jumps out at me most is that in January it seemed for every positive report on housing, there were two that were negative. . . a kind of ‘one step up and two steps back’ scenario. By the middle of the spring, I was reporting roughly a 50/50 split between good news and bad news but now, for the last several months, all I am seeing is positive news. Granted, much of it, though positive, has not exactly been enough to make one jump for joy for a resurgent real estate market but it has been encouraging nonetheless. Two things are abundantly obvious in the recent data. Home sales, both new and existing, are rising and home prices are stabilizing. This has what has long been needed to correct the oversupply of housing through lower prices and increased demand. Let us hope this positive trend continues.

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