Earlier this week, we were greeted with news that new homes sales posted a solid increase in June:
Calculated Risk has more here and here, with the conclusion that is was "a solid report even with the downward revisions to previous months." More interesting, though, is that the gains came amid a spike in mortgage rates. This could be taken as evidence that the rate rise has had only minimal impacts on housing markets, thus clearing the way for the Fed to scale back asset purchases sooner than later.
That said, today we learned this, via Bloomberg:
Rising mortgage rates contributed to increased cancellations and a dropoff in traffic in June, according to Fort Worth, Texas-based D.R. Horton....
....Homebuyers are “shocked and disturbed” rates have moved up so fast, D.R. Horton Chief Executive Officer Donald Tomnitz said on a conference call.
But not everyone in the industry is singing the same tune:
Richard Dugas, PulteGroup’s chief executive officer, said on a conference call today that the higher mortgage rates haven’t hurt demand and buyer traffic remained consistent throughout the quarter and into July.
“We’re in the camp that if higher rates reflect improving economic conditions we’d expect a housing recovery to remain on track,” Dugas said. “As an industry, we can sell more houses if more people have jobs, even with modestly higher rates.”
On the margin, some buyers were certainly impacted by the sharp gain in rates, but rates are only one part of the buying decision - factors like job growth also matter. The initial sticker shock might only be temporary. And perhaps even higher rates are necessary to make a significant dent in the housing market. From Bloomberg:
As Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist wrote yesterday, homebuyers say rising rates is their top worry when looking to buy, even more so than rising prices or finding a home they like. But as Kolko points out, people’s actions aren’t matching their words so far. Despite the higher rates, applications for purchase mortgages rose in June, as did asking prices for homes. Trulia’s data suggest that mortgage rates around 6 percent would be a tipping point that cause a majority of people to reconsider buying.
Overall, I would say the negative anecdotal housing evidence is too limited at this point to have a policy impact. And note the positive anecdotal evidence from the latest Beige Book:
Residential real estate activity increased at a moderate to strong pace in most Districts. Most Districts reported increases in home sales. Cleveland noted that June sales of single-family homes were down compared with earlier in the spring but up from last year. Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Dallas, and San Francisco noted strong residential real estate markets. Home prices increased throughout the majority of the reporting Districts. Boston, New York, Richmond, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Dallas noted low or declining home inventories and upward pressures on home prices in some areas. Residential construction activity also improved moderately across the Districts, and contacts in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, and San Francisco reported faster growth in multi-family construction, in particular.
Moreover, it is not clear that taking some steam off the housing market was not an intent of some policymakers. San Francisco Federal Reserve President John Williams was quoted recently saying:
“The outsized response” in the yields of 10-year Treasuries in recent weeks may have stemmed from complacency and “froth” in the market, Williams said. Some investors expected the Fed to keep quantitative easing and zero interest rates in place for longer than officials were anticipating.
“The market reaction to me probably is a sign that there was complacency and excesses going on,” Williams said. “It’s a good thing that maybe came to an end, or maybe was lessened.”
But earlier in the article he said:
Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco President John Williams, who has never dissented from a policy decision, said “it’s still too early” for the Fed to begin trimming its bond-buying, warning of risks to the economy from low inflation and government budget cuts.
“We need to be sure that the economy can maintain its momentum in the face of ongoing fiscal contraction,” Williams said in a speech today in Rohnert Park, California. “It is also prudent to wait a bit and make sure that inflation doesn’t keep coming in below expectations, possibly signaling a more persistent decline in inflation.”
I find a lot of inconsistency in Fedspeak of late. If the economy needs continued support, why even begin the tapering discussion? And if the economy needs continuing support, then the rate rise represents a real tightening of monetary conditions, not just a lessening of accommodation, so how can Fed officials cheer-lead the rate rise? We saw something similar from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke:
The second reason for increases in rates is probably the unwinding of leveraged and perhaps excessively risky positions in the market. It's probably a good thing to hav e that happen, although the tightening that's associated with that is unwelcome. But at least the benefit of that is that some concerns about building financial risks are mitigated in that way and probably make some FOMC participants comfortable with this tool going forward.
In my opinion, we no longer know the Fed's reaction function. The reaction function does not appear to be entirely dependent on unemployment and inflation. There was never any reason to adjust QE on that basis, that's why Bernanke's post-FOMC comments caught everyone by surprise. If you take the economy off the table, then the Fed appears to have a financial stability variable now built into their reaction function. Perhaps that variable reflects concerns about leverage, perhaps, as Izabella Kamiska suggests, it reflects liquidity issues. Maybe they were worried about lighting a fire beneath Housing Bubble 2.0. We just don't know; we just know that they are not entirely dissatisfied with rising rates despite the potential for negative feedback on the economy.
Bottom Line: Still too early to conclude the extent of the negative feedback of the recent rise in rates. Moreover, it is not clear to what extent Fed officials are unhappy with that feedback. Less so than we might suppose if they now have a financial stability variable in their reaction function. If so, policy efforts will center less on reversing the rate increase than in moderating the pace of increases.