As the COVID-19 spreads and the patient count and death toll grow, economists are slashing their once-rosy expectations for global growth in 2020.
But amid the anxiety, there’s one bright spot in the U.S. that is likely to be immune from the virus fallout. Analysts say the housing market isn’t just domestic in nature. It will also be buoyed by exceptionally cheap borrowing costs, years of pent-up demand, and a residential construction sector that may have finally figured out how to efficiently produce entry-level properties.
“Year after year, through things like the Greek debt crisis I had a theory that home buyers were going to be spooked, and they just shrugged off the news,” said Glenn Kelman, CEO of home brokerage Redfin
“The past few years have made a fool out of anyone predicting higher rates and challenging American exceptionalism. The U.S. economy just keeps on going strong.”
‘The past few years have made a fool out of anyone predicting higher rates and challenging American exceptionalism. The U.S. economy just keeps on going strong.’
Just how ferocious is demand in the housing market?
On his first-quarter earnings call last week, Kelman had this to say: “A Redfin agent just told us about a bidding war with 30 other buyers in a far-flung area outside of Portland, Ore., this month. The property being fought over was a mobile home. This situation can last longer than most realize, as the law of supply and demand works slowly in real estate.”
That is helping to extend what has long been a seasonal business, Kelman told MarketWatch. Anxious buyers are pushing the “spring selling season” earlier and earlier. Investors may start to get a read on that activity this week, which will bring the first housing economic releases of 2020.
On Wednesday, the Commerce Department will report the number of new homes started and permits applied for in January. On Friday, the National Association of Realtors will release data on January sales of previously-owned homes, which make up about 90% of the market.
Kelman isn’t the only observer who expects big things from housing this year. “It will be a tailwind” for the broader U.S. economy, said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics.
For Zandi, the state of housing comes down to financing costs. “If we have a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 4% or below, we should have a solid market,” he said. “If we have 3.5%, we have rip-roaring growth. North of 4%, the market will fade.”
A 1.60% benchmark U.S. Treasury 10-year note rate
which was the average in the most recent week, is the sweet spot for the mortgage market, Zandi said.
Kelman said that similar to other exogenous events that manage to at least momentarily surprise markets and keep yields in check, the outbreak of coronavirus may have the unintended consequence of keeping borrowing costs low.
“The coronavirus is sort of a dark irony helping out housing,” Zandi told MarketWatch. “It’s keeping rates down as global investors come piling into the U.S. but it’s not hurting our economy to the point where it’s costing us jobs,” he said.
Related: Yes, Brexit will help you refi
Zandi and others emphasize that it’s still too soon to know anything about the true impact of the infectious disease, but as Kelman put it, the housing market won’t turn down on a dime. “Do I see any storm clouds on the horizon? I don’t. But is it going to rain? I know it will,” he told MarketWatch.
And for now, Americans may be mostly oblivious about the angst swirling through financial markets. On Friday, a closely watched measure of consumer confidence roared past economist expectations to match a near-15-year high. Only 7% of survey respondents mentioned the coronavirus in early February. It’s too early to know whether that means Americans aren’t very aware of the situation – or that they are brushing it off.
Still, as Kelman put it, the decision to buy a home is the most “macro-sensitive” purchase there is. Americans can put off clothing purchases or dine in rather than visit restaurants, but they know once they buy a home, they are making a 30-year commitment — and yet are still out in force touring open houses.
Builders may also finally start to make a solid contribution to economic growth: Zandi thinks this could be the first year in a decade in which analysts underestimate the pace of residential construction rather than overestimate it. It’s taken a while, but builders have finally figured out how to make their costs pencil out at lower home purchase points, Zandi noted.
Homeowners are also renovating and redecorating. In the government’s January retail sales data, one of the bright spots was home centers: stores like Home Depot Inc.
and Lowe’s Cos.
(Both home-improvement retailers will report fourth-quarter earnings during the last week of February.)
How can investors place bets on how it all shakes out?
An exchange-traded fund that offers what it calls a way to play the housing shortage, the Hoya Capital Housing ETF
has gained about 6.6% in the year to date, outperforming the S&P 500’s
4.6% rise and the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s
3% year-to-date gain, but not the 8.5% return thus far for the Nasdaq Composite Index
Meanwhile, markets closed mixed on Friday, but ended solidly higher for the week, with the Dow advancing 1%, the S&P 500 1.6%, and the Nasdaq 2.2% for the week.
In any case, housing activity has thus far served as a pillar in the economy in its 11th year of expansion, while other areas, like production and corporate investments, have languished, market segments that are likely to remain under pressure as China suffers from COVID-19.
Next week, may help to determine whether that trend holds up.