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Bottom Fishing the Housing Sector

May 20, 20235 min read

Are you trolling, jigging, or chumming? Bottom fishing might be your answer. It’s certainly been enjoyable for QI since 2011 when we first attended “Camp Kotok” in Grand Lake Stream, Maine just in time for the debt ceiling to get resolved with no reforms leading to the downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt. But we digress.The go-to technique for countless anglers, bottom fishers lower a weighted hook or lure to the bottom of the water column. This may not be the most artful form of fishing, but it can be the best chance for red-hot fast action. Bringing the kids along?

Dropping baits on schools usually leads to instantly bent rods and howls of delight. The best part is that if it lives near the bottom, you can catch just about anything. In freshwater, that means Perch to Bluegill and Carp to Bass. Saltwater angling lets you set your sights on tasty Flounder or Sea Bass right off the coast. Going offshore kicks it into high gear. From iconic fighters like Snapper to Grouper and giant Amberjack to Tilefish, this list is impossibly long. Bottom fishing not only fills the cooler for dinner, it’s easy to master. In investing, bottom fishing entails picking assets that have taken a bath and are considered undervalued. In economics, the same methodology can be applied to determine if a fundamental indicator has reached its maximum bearish point. The October 2022 peak in mortgage rates and subsequent decline set up the potential to bottom fish for a recovery in U.S. housing. By early-February 2023, the Freddie Mac 30-year fixed rate had fallen by about 100 basis points to 6.09% from 7.08%. Mortgage applications for home purchases and forward-looking pending home sales (transactions under contract) bounced off the bottom. Hope for housing bulls blossomed. And then came March, when strong fundamentals sent rates higher to the 6.35% rate at which we find them today. Applications to purchase a home have yet to find a bottom - they’ve moved sideways through mid-May (purple line). The disappointing reversal in March pending home sales (olive line) is not likely to be the last.

Demand for apartments remains depressed. Granted, apartment market conditions sales volume index (orange line) posted relative improvement in 2023’s second quarter to 26 from 10 in the first quarter and a low point of 6 in 2022’s fourth quarter. Regardless, these readings are well below the 50 expansion/contraction line. The last year’s persistent decline has manifested in a clear break lower in Multifamily Building Permits. The 561,000 seasonally adjusted annual rate in April marked a two-year low for this varsity leading indicator (light blue line). Annual seasonal revisions also released with yesterday’s report added to the cautious tone. The biggest takeaway: 2022 Multifamily permits were adjusted up by a total amount of 258,000; through the first three months of 2023, each month was revised lower for a net -92,000 spread over January, February, and March.

Looking ahead, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Architecture Billings Index leads nonresidential construction activity by 9-12 months. While only available through March, which fell to 44.2 from February’s 46.2, that month still marked the seventh straight below the 50-breakeven mark (red line). Since the series’ 1995 inception, three episodes compete with that stretch the 2001 recession, predating the 9/11 shock (6 months), the 2006 top of the single-family housing bubble (7 months) and the record 33-month marathon run in the red in the Great Recession. Falling Multifamily permits and protracted architect pessimism flag a prolonged down cycle in Multifamily starts (yellow line), which will pile on to the lengthy weakness already seen on the single-family side (not illustrated). Single-family starts topped in November 2021, and clocked a -28.1% year-over-year (YoY) decline in April. Over that same period, Multifamily posted a -11.5% drop. The ‘catch-down’ will come care of the tightest lending standards and weakest demand for Multifamily loans in the second quarter since the Federal Reserve’s Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey began collecting data in 2013. Architects’ “pencils down” is visible in the architectural worker workweek, buried in the sub-basement of the U.S. employment report’s establishment survey and -1.6% YoY through March (these data lag top-line figures by one month, lilac line).

The compression in hours for architecture firms has yet to bleed into construction sites -- the comparable YoY trend for construction hours was up 0.8% YoY through April (green line). If past is precedent, though, the cyclical relationship between architect and construction worker hours should generate a convergence with the latter falling toward the former. Higher prices and rates continue to buffet housing affordability, a negative dynamic that has yet to reflect the full effects of tighter lending standards and the seemingly unending layoff wave. In a report released yesterday, Trepp warned that recent Multifamily developments financed with Commercial Real Estate (CRE) Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs) are highly susceptible to refinancing risk. The Washington D.C. metro area is the weakest large market with 25% of the market having been constructed since 2019, only 73% of refinancing risk.

The Washington D.C. metro area is the weakest large market with 25% of the market having been constructed since 2019, only 73% of which is occupied, 11 percentage points below the weighted average occupancy of all CRE CLO loans to properties. Detroit, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh rank the 2nd 4th most vulnerable metros. It’s not yet time to reel in the lines and catch the big fish of a sustainable housing recovery just yet. For that, we need higher joblessness to land one last left hook to the market.

Credit: The Daily Feather

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