August 29, 2014
Real Estate Business Contacts on Target
After several months of year-over-year declines in housing starts and increasing concern that momentum in the housing market was slowing, we received some positive news this past week. The U.S. Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, jointly released the July 2014 construction statistics: total housing starts were up 15.7 percent from the upwardly revised June estimate and were 10.7 percent higher than the year-earlier level.
This news is fairly consistent with the reports we received from our real estate business contacts. Each month since 2006, the Atlanta Fed has conducted a poll of brokers and builders from six states in the Southeast in an effort to gather anecdotal intelligence. (These states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.) This intelligence not only helps form the basis for the Atlanta Fed’s construction and real estate submission to the Beige Book, but it is also considered a helpful tool for collecting insight on current market conditions before the release of the official housing statistics.
Our August poll results came in last week. Altogether, 60 business contacts participated—44 of them were residential brokers and 16, builders. The results reflect activity in July 2014. What did we find? As it relates to housing starts:
- Sixty-three percent of respondents indicated that current construction activity was ahead of the year-earlier level, 19 percent said construction activity was down, and the rest indicated that activity was about the same. In August 2014, the current construction activity diffusion index value was 0.44.
- Fifty-seven percent of respondents indicated that they expect construction activity to increase going forward (specifically, over the next three months), 13 percent said they expect activity to decline, and 31 percent said they expect the level of construction activity to remain about the same. The construction activity outlook diffusion index value also happened to be 0.44.
We compute a diffusion index of responses to help us more easily track the trend over time. Basically, we subtract the share of respondents reporting decreasing activity from the share of respondents reporting increasing activity to arrive at a diffusion index value. (We do not factor those reporting no change in activity into the diffusion index equation.)
We tend to think of any diffusion index value higher than zero as an indication that construction activity is increasing, so we’d like to think that our signal from real estate business contacts was somewhat accurate. Using this same rule of thumb, though, it is hard not to notice that our construction activity diffusion indexes have been tracking above zero since 2011, and this does not necessarily jibe with recent data releases.
So how useful is the Atlanta Fed’s Southeast housing market poll? Well, we’ve spent some time evaluating survey data against the actual outcomes to better understand what we can reasonably take away from the results. We ask contacts what their expectation is for construction activity next three months versus the year-ago period. The chart below features a scatter plot of the diffusion index on the horizontal axis and the year-over-year change in the three-month moving average of single-family housing starts on the vertical axis. (Given that we are asking them to be forward-looking, we lag the contact responses.)
We found that when the diffusion index value is greater than 0.3, starts subsequently grew. When the diffusion index values falls below -0.3, starts tended to fall. But we found that between -0.3 and 0.3, the official statistics on housing starts could go either way. This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, particularly because a diffusion index value near zero (regardless of whether it is positive or negative) indicates that responses from contacts were mixed. Real estate markets are in fact local, so it doesn’t mean that our contacts were wrong. It simply means that their responses are less likely to match the larger picture when aggregated. And as we can see in the scatter plot above, large declines were much more likely given the time period covered.
Using a simple regression model, we would have expected June 2014 starts in the six states we cover to be around 114,000 rather than the roughly 103,000 that were reported. So while the poll results may not serve as a perfect early warning system, they do correlate with subsequent starts in the states we cover. To explore the poll results in more detail, please visit the Atlanta Fed's Construction and Real Estate Survey page.
By Carl Hudson, director for the Center for Real Estate Analytics in the Atlanta Fed´s research department, and
Jessica Dill, senior economic research analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
June 11, 2014
Signs Point to Slow but Steady Construction Growth
After bottoming out in early 2011 and following an upward trend for two years, national new house sales on a seasonally adjusted basis have been essentially flat since January 2013 and are at a pace about half that of 2000–01. Over the past month, speeches by Fed Chair Janet Yellen and Reserve Bank presidents John Williams, William Dudley, and Charles Plosser have included references to a slowing housing sector in the face of strong fundamentals as a source of economic uncertainty. They mentioned many reasons for the slow pace of housing´s recovery, including difficulties in increasing housing supply (that is, construction).
In the Southeast, we hear from our housing contacts that it remains difficult to acquire construction financing and that funding of land acquisition and development projects is extremely difficult. In the most recent Southeast Housing Market Poll, most builders continued to report that the amount of available construction and development finance fell short of demand (see the chart). Concern regarding the lack of readily available construction financing is not unique to the Southeast and may be part of the reason for the recent slowing in the housing sector. Fortunately, it appears that construction financing may in fact be getting a bit more accessible.
A key input to construction is the availability of financing. We explored construction lending trends in a few of our posts last year (here and here). The most recent bank lending data indicate several reasons to believe that banks continue to return to construction and development as a line of business.
Aggregate bank construction and development lending remains well below its 2008 peak (see the table). That said, more than half of the banks with a construction business line are expanding their single-family residential construction lending. Interestingly, the median March 2013 year-over-year growth rate in residential construction lending was positive, yet aggregate 1–4 family construction loans fell from March 2012 to March 2013, which means that lots of smaller lenders were growing. The good news is that the March level of 1–4 family construction loans increased in 2014 for the first time since the recession ended.
Although banks appear to be lending for residential construction (the "vertical" part of homebuilding), we cannot say the same for lot development (the "horizontal" portion). The data is a bit less clear on this front because lending for raw land and land development is lumped together with loans for all construction that is not for 1–4 family structures. Aggregate lending for "other construction, all land development and other land" increased year over year, but the median growth rate was negative. That is, more banks are pulling back from this activity than are growing, but the ones that are growing are the ones with larger volumes. Considering that lenders have viewed multifamily construction favorably, it is more likely that the growth in lending is attributable to multifamily loans rather than to lot acquisition and development.
The Fed presidents I mentioned in the first paragraph were optimistic about housing in large part because population growth and household formation both point to an inevitable increase in housing demand. The evidence from bank construction lending supports this idea that growth will continue, but it also suggests that the recovery will continue at its slow and steady pace.
By Carl Hudson, Director, Center for Real Estate Analytics in the Atlanta Fed´s research department