Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • Feb 22, 2023

U.S. Housing: Is Activity About to Pick Up?


Jim Egan: Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Jim Egan, Co-Head of U.S. Securitized Products Research here at Morgan Stanley.

Jay Bacow: And I'm Jay Bacow, the other Co-Head of U.S. Securities Products Research.

Jim Egan: And on this episode of the podcast, we'll be discussing the U.S. housing and mortgage markets. It's Wednesday, February 22nd, at 11 a.m. in New York.

Jay Bacow: All right. So, Jim, when we're looking at data on the housing market, it seems like it's all over the place. We've got home sale activity pointing one direction. We've got home prices doing other things. What's going on? You've had this bifurcation narrative. Is the bifurcation narrative still bifurcating?

Jim Egan: So to remind our listeners, the bifurcation narrative for our housing forecasts is between home prices, which we thought were a lot more protected, and housing activity, so sales and housing starts where we thought you were going to see a lot more weakness. And I would say that bifurcation narrative still exists. But, as you're saying, the different data have been pointing to different things. For instance, purchase applications, they picked up sequentially in January from December. And after declining in every single month of 2022, the homebuilder confidence has increased in both January and February.

Jay Bacow: All right. But when I think about what happened over that time period, mortgage rates fell almost 100 basis points from their highs in November, as you measure that purchase application pick up from December to January. Is that playing a role? Do you think that there are signs that maybe housing activity is going to pick back up?

Jim Egan: So from a mortgage rate perspective, it'd be difficult for us to say it isn't. So we do think that that's playing a role, but we also think it's a little too early to say that housing activity is going to pick back up from here. For one thing, mortgage rates might have come down 100 basis points from mid-November into January, but they've also begun to move higher over the past few weeks. For another, the variables that we've been paying close attention to haven't really shown much improvement.

Jay Bacow: Those variables, you mean affordability and supply. How are those looking now?

Jim Egan: Exactly. Now let's think about what drove our bifurcation hypothesis in the first place. Because of the record growth in home prices that we saw in 2021 and 2022, combined with the sharp increase in mortgage rates in 2022. They were up almost 400 basis points before that 100 basis point decline that we talked about. Affordability deteriorated more than at any point in over three decades. In fact, the year over year deterioration was roughly three times what we experienced in the years leading up to the GFC.

Jay Bacow: Now we want to remind our listeners that this affordability deterioration is really for first time homebuyers. Given the vast predominance of the fixed rate mortgage in the United States most homeowners have a low 30 year fixed rate mortgage with an average rate of about 3.5%. Obviously, their affordability didn't change. What did change was prospective homeowners that are looking to buy a house and now would have to take a mortgage at a higher rate. That does mean that those people with a low fixed rate mortgage, they've got low rates.

Jim Egan: And that means that they simply have not been incentivized to list their homes for sale. The inventory of existing homes available for sale plummeted to over 40 year lows. And we only really have 40 years of data. More importantly for the drop in sales volumes that we've seen, if an existing homeowner is not selling their home, they're also not buying a home on the follow that further exaggerates the drop. But thinking about where we are today, affordability is no longer rapidly deteriorating. In fact, it's basically been unchanged over the past three months. And inventories, they remain near 40 year lows, but they're also no longer falling rapidly. If anything, they're actually kind of increasing on the margins. It is only on the margins because of that lock in effect that you mentioned Jay.

Jay Bacow: Okay. But it is increasing slightly. So if you have a little bit of a pickup in inventory in basically unchanged affordability, what does that mean for home sales?

Jim Egan: Affordability is challenged and supply is very tight, but both are no longer getting even more stretched. In other words, we don't see a catalyst for sales volumes to inflect higher from here, but we also don't think the ingredients are in place for large month over month declines to continue either. I wouldn't say that sales have bottomed, but I would lean more towards they are in the process of bottoming right now. We expect volumes to be weak in the first half of 2023, but perhaps not substantially weaker than they were in the fourth quarter of 2022, where volumes retraced all the way back to 2010 levels. We also want to emphasize that this will still result in significant year over year declines, given how strong the first half of 2022 was. The January purchase applications that I earlier stated were moving higher, they were down 40% year over year from January of 2022. And they also have started to come down a little bit in February. The existing home sales print that happened earlier this week for January, that was down 37% year over year.

Jay Bacow: All right, so, home sale activity is in the process of bottoming, but it's down 37% to 40%, depending on what number that we're talking about. In order for things to bifurcate, we need another side. So what's happening with prices?

Jim Egan: I would say that prices are still more protected. That doesn't mean the prices are going to continue to grow. When we think about year over year growth in prices, it continues to slow. We were down to 7.7% in the most recent print, which represents November home prices. We'll get the December print next week. We think it'll slow to roughly 6% when we get that. And month over month, home prices have been coming down. They're down about 3.5% from peak, which was June of 2022. We do think that year over year will still turn negative in 2023, the first time that's happened since 2012. But even if we get the 4% decline in home prices in 2023 that we're calling for, that would still only really bring us back to the end of 2021, which is up 30% from the onset of the pandemic in March of 2020. And as I mentioned earlier, sales volumes hit levels we hadn't seen since 2010. So, that bifurcation still exists.

Jay Bacow: All right. So that bifurcation between home sales and home prices is still going to exist. Jim, always great talking to you.

Jim Egan: Great talking to you, too, Jay.

Jay Bacow: And thank you for listening. If you enjoy Thoughts on the Market, please leave us a review on the Apple Podcasts app, and share the podcast with a friend or colleague today.

With housing affordability plateauing and inventory picking up, sales could be poised to rise again in the near future.