I might just be the last pessimist in the housing sector.
Our president, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, nearly every analyst you talk to, the Fool's own Morgan Housel, and the most recent building permit data would indicate that the worst is behind us and housing is on the upswing. Building permit data released Tuesday indicated a 3.5-year high to a seasonally adjusted rate of 717,000 homes. This is not even one-third of the 2.27 million peak reached by new housing permits in January 2006, but it's been trending higher for a few months now and homebuilders' sentiment is also at a five-year high.
Individual homebuilders have also shown moderate new order growth and have rallied on the prospects that things are, simply, not as bad as once thought. In January, Lennar (NYS: LEN) reported a 20% pop in home orders while D.R. Horton (NYS: DHI) profiled a 13% rise in net sales orders and an 18% jump in backlog.
You might be wondering how someone could possibly be bearish in light of these figures. It's actually pretty easy if you consider the very unpopular possibility that the homebuilders don't have the slightest clue what they're doing.
Think about it. These same homebuilders were calling a bottom in 2008, then in 2009, then 2010, and so on. That strategy ensures they'll eventually be right, but who's to say that this is the year we hit bottom? The data so far would suggest the descent of building permits has stopped, but it hasn't done a thing to address the glut of vacant housing already on the market.
According to RealtyTrac, there are 1.35 million foreclosed properties waiting to be sold with LPS Mortgage Monitor predicting another 4 million foreclosures will hit the market over the next two years as banks begin to take possession of foreclosed properties. It's not a coincidence that housing prices have been steadily dropping ever since foreclosures flooded the market, and I think it would be a misconception to assume that's going to change anytime soon.
I also wonder just what homebuilders are thinking by ramping up new orders when, based on data by mortgage-data research firm CoreLogic, 11.1 million homeowners (22.8% of all homes) were still underwater on their mortgage as of the fourth quarter of 2011 -- and count me as one of them! This figure has dropped a paltry 0.2% since the third quarter of 2009 despite massive efforts by the U.S. government and the financial sector to buoy home prices and make home loan refinancing easier for homeowners.
I'd also love to see if new home loan mortgage applications dry up with the 10-year Treasury yield spiking nearly 40 basis points over the past two weeks. While there is no precise correlation, the 10-year Treasury yield often moves in tandem with the 30-year mortgage rate. A rise in the yield often leads to a rise in the 30-year mortgage rate and vice versa. A few months back I expounded on consumers' hypersensitivity to even slight blips higher in mortgage rates, so this move up could put a stranglehold on this small glimpse of homebuilding green shoots.
I'm not a complete dolt; I do feel the housing sector will rebound at some point. I just feel we are nowhere near that turning point despite what the data right now are suggesting.
Housing bulls, let me hear from you in the comments section below: What am I missing here?
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At the time this article was published Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He's digging in his heels against the housing sector. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that's won't slam the door in your face.
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