I just posted this at MoneyWatch:
Housing starts fell unexpectedly last month. The Census report gives the details:
Privately-owned housing starts in October were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 529,000. This is 10.6 percent (±8.7%) below the revised September estimate of 592,000 and is 30.7 percent (±8.3%) below the October 2008 rate of 763,000.
Single-family housing starts in October were at a rate of 476,000; this is 6.8 percent (±7.5%)* below the revised September figure of 511,000. The October rate for units in buildings with five units or more was 48,000.
This graph shows the recent trend in housing starts:
As the graph shows, starts bottomed several months ago, and have been "moving sideways" ever since. What is causing housing starts to move sideways rather than recover? Calculated Risk, one of the best sites for analysis of the housing industry, gives this explanation (which I agree with):
Total housing starts were at ... the all time record low in April of 479 thousand (the lowest level since the Census Bureau began tracking housing starts in 1959). Starts had rebounded to 590 thousand in June, and have move sideways (or down) for five months.
Single-family starts were at 476 thousand (SAAR) in October... Just like for total starts, single-family starts have been at this level for five months.
As he notes, an important piece of the puzzle is that the percentage of vacant units has been climbing and is now at a record level (see this report):
It is very unlikely that there will be a strong rebound in housing starts with a record number of vacant housing units.
The vacancy rate has continued to climb even after housing starts fell off a cliff. Initially this was because of a significant number of completions. Also some hidden inventory (like some 2nd homes) have become available for sale or for rent, and lately some households have probably doubled up because of tough economic times.
It appears that ... starts are now moving sideways - and will probably stay near this level until the excess existing home inventory is reduced.
This raises the question of whether the overall economy will echo this pattern of falling backwards after apparent improvement, i.e. of moving sideways for a period of time. This is something I don't think we can or should rule out as we think about the appropriate economic policies that we should have in place to help the economy recover from the recession.