Housing’s Uneven Recovery In February

Is the housing market recovering? Yes, but it’s slow and uneven. That’s the message in today’s update for February housing starts and newly issued building permits. Residential construction continues to revive, and that’s a positive for the wider economy, although the revival is modest.

New building permits last month rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 717,000–another post-recession high and a handsome jump over January’s rate of 682,000. The advancing permit levels imply stronger housing activity in the months ahead. New housing starts, however, slipped a bit to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 698,000 in February, down from January’s upwardly revised 706,000. A sign of weakness? Maybe, but looking at the trend suggests otherwise.
Consider the recent history for permits and starts, as shown in the chart below. We can debate the latest data points and try to draw conclusions, but it’s the trend that’s important and by that standard it’s hard to dismiss the recent gains for both starts and permits as statistical noise. Indeed, permits have broken into new post-recession high territory and starts, while down slightly in the latest reading, are holding their ground at just under the highest levels since 2008. It may all come crashing down, but based on the data we have in hand, and considering it in context with recent history, there’s a reasonably good case for arguing that positive momentum is bubbling.

For another perspective, consider how new starts and permits fare on a rolling 12-month-percentage-change basis, as shown in the second chart below. Both series are up by roughly 35% vs. their year-earlier levels as of February—the fastest year-over-year rates of increase in two years and (more importantly) a sharp rise compared with the annual paces of recent months.

It’s premature to argue that the housing market has fully recovered or that it’s now destined for a healthy, sustained recovery. But it’s clear that modest signs of growth appear to be taking root, which is good news for the broader economy. Even so, it’s still too soon to celebrate with oil and gasoline prices on the march. Some observers argue that higher energy prices are a sign of economic strength, and so there’s less risk here than it appears. Maybe, but if gasoline prices continue to rise, there’s less confidence for thinking that housing, or the economic recovery, will remain unaffected.
So far, at least, housing appears immune to the energy factor, and without a sharp rise in gasoline prices from here on out there may be more good news for housing in the months ahead. “The housing market continues to recover at a very gradual rate,” says Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets. “The increase in permits likely flags further strength in the months ahead.”
But let’s be clear: energy prices are the wild card–for housing and so much more. And with quite a bit of the rise in oil and gas bound up with geopolitical risk in the Middle East generally, and Iran in particular, it’s hard to say how this all plays out, or when. As CNN prudently asks: Is oil the new Greece?