As you can see in the accompanying chart, single-family starts have been on a declining trend since early-2018, so the gains of the last three months are a distinct contra-trend move. This is one more mark against the contention that the US economy is verging toward recession. We have remarked previously how job growth is holding well all things considered, how the factory sector looks to be showing some signs of a bounce, and how consumer spending is growing robustly. Today’s data extend this skein to the construction sector in general and to housing in particular.
Our story line has been that housing would continue soft through the end of the year. We believe that inventories of unsold new homes had reached intolerably high levels by early-2018, and that it was attempts to rein in excessive inventories that drove the declines in starts over the last 18 months.
The chart shows both starts and sales of new, single-family homes. The scales on the chart are adjusted to reflect the disparity in levels between the two series, since owner-builds show up in the starts data but not in new-home sales. In other words, by our calculations, the fact that the blue line is above the green line over most of the chart points to ever-increasing levels of unsold new homes on the market. By late-2018, new-home inventories had reached 7.4 months’ worth of sales. At that time, builders started discounting prices, which helped boost sales levels to pare inventories. Declining mortgage rates have helped as well. However, levels of inventories have been pared only marginally, and as of July, inventories remained above 6 months’ worth of sales, compared to "normal" levels of about 4 months’ sales.
Even with this downbeat housing story, we still thought the recession narrative was wrong. The fact that housing starts have confounded our story to the upside—along with the other favorable data released lately—is a further knock against the recession story.
We still expect starts to decline over the rest of the year in order to finally bring home inventories back in line. However, the fact that lately starts have bounced nicely anyway underlines the contention that the past year’s softness is a managed response to excess inventories, and NOT evidence of a relentless plunge in the sector.