Homebuyers Hunker Down as Housing’s Drag on Economy May Worsen

Sanjay Jain called his real estate broker four days ago to cancel a deal to buy a three-bedroom home in Folsom, California, unnerved by another plunge in the most volatile equities market on record.

“Seeing what’s happening on the stock market made me think that it’s not a good time to be buying a home,” Jain said. “I’m going to wait and see.”

As the U.S. economy shows signs of sputtering, instability on Wall Street is sapping the confidence of would-be property buyers, said Karl Case, co-founder of the S&P/Case-Shiller home- price index. That means housing, which aided every recovery except one before the most recent recession, may deepen its five-year drag on growth.

“There’s a dramatic effect on an economy when a major sector is flat out,” said Case, professor emeritus of economics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. “If housing takes another leg down, it’s an accelerator. It’s going to make a recession happen faster and deeper.”

Home sales in July fell to the lowest point this year, the National Association of Realtors said in a report last week. Applications for mortgages to buy homes dropped to a 13-month low in the week ended Aug. 12, even as borrowing costs tumbled, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index sank to the lowest since the recession.

Equities Slide

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index has fallen for four straight weeks, losing 16 percent from July 22 through Aug. 19. On the day Jain canceled his deal to buy the Folsom house, global stock markets erased $1.8 trillion of wealth as Morgan Stanley said the U.S. and Europe were “dangerously close” to recession. After S&P cut the U.S. credit rating on Aug. 5, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had the biggest one-day loss since 2008, igniting memories of the housing-induced financial crisis that triggered a global recession and wiped out more than 8 million U.S. jobs.

“A lot of people have seen their down payments for a home disappear in the stock market,” said Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH Associates, a loan-data firm in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. “It served as a reinforcement to the hunker-down mentality that a lot of homebuyers already had.”

Before the start of the economic recovery in mid-2009, the U.S. had not exited a recession without being aided by housing, its largest asset class, except for in 1981, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That year, the recovery was followed by a second, and deeper, recession in 1982.

Since the 2006 real estate bust, a measure of homebuilding and brokers’ commissions known as residential investment has drained gross domestic product by almost three-quarters of a percentage point annually, on average.

Limiting Growth

For 2010, the first full year of the U.S. recovery, residential investment fell 4.3 percent. Going back to the Great Depression, it gained an average of 22 percent in the first year of expansion, excluding 1946, when it tripled as soldiers returned from World War II.

The U.S. recovery is weakening. The world’s largest economy grew at a 1.3 percent annual rate in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said on July 29. That was less than the increase of 1.8 percent forecast by economists surveyed by Bloomberg. Jobless claims climbed to the highest in a month in the week ended Aug. 13, according to the Labor Department.

“The typical homebuyer gets rattled when confronted with economic turmoil,” said Stan Humphries, chief economist of Zillow.com, an online real estate information service in Seattle. “The type of fear we’re seeing could substantially worsen the housing market.”

Falling Sales, Prices

The real estate market has been struggling after a federal tax credit spurred demand in the second half of 2009 and early 2010. Home sales last month were 9.1 percent below their level at the beginning of the economic expansion two years earlier, data from the National Association of Realtors show. As of May, home prices were 7.3 percent below the start of the recovery, according to the Federal Housing Finance Administration.

The share of mortgages with late payments in the second quarter rose to 8.44 percent from 8.32 percent the previous three months, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported today.

The degenerating housing market has confounded attempts by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke to revive demand by lowering interest rates. The Fed purchased more than $2 trillion of mortgage-back securities and Treasury bonds in the last two years to hold down long-term borrowing costs.

Bernanke got the cheaper home-loan financing costs he wanted -- last week, rates for 30-year fixed mortgages fell to 4.15 percent, the lowest in more than half a century, according to Freddie Mac. Still, rates that have been below 5 percent in all but two weeks of this year have failed to spur sales enough to support economic growth.

‘Depressed’ Market

Bernanke and the other rate-setting members of the Federal Open Market Committee described the housing market as “depressed” in statements following their last 11 meetings, including the latest on Aug. 8. They pledged at that gathering to keep their benchmark interest rate at a record low for at least two years.

“Low mortgage rates are only helpful to homebuyers who aren’t paralyzed with fear after watching their 401(k) disappear,” said Mark Goldman, a lecturer at the Corky McMillin Center for Real Estate at San Diego State University. “For now, people see the stock market as a casino table.”

Homebuyer cancellations in the past two months rose about 10 percent from a year earlier, Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the Realtors group, said at a news conference on Aug. 18. He attributed the jump to trouble getting appraisals that match the loan amount and “overly stringent” lending standards. In addition, member agents mentioned a rise in “other problems,” which include waning buyer confidence, he said.

Waiting for Deals

Jim Hamilton, Jain’s agent at Lyon Real Estate in Folsom, said he is seeing more buyers hold back on purchases because they expect home prices to fall.

“People are watching the stock market as a major indicator of what’s going on in the economy,” he said. “Buyers are beginning to think that if they wait, they’re going to get a better deal in a few months.”

Last week, Freddie Mac said it expects home prices to decline 6 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, worse than the 2 percent slump it estimated last month. The McLean, Virginia-based mortgage-finance company also reduced its 2011 GDP growth forecast to 1.6 percent from 2.7 percent.

The Aug. 16 report compared this month’s stock market turmoil to the Cyclone roller coaster at the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, New York.

“In sharp contrast to the thrills provided by the Cyclone, those who rode the capital markets in recent weeks have had a far more shrilling cry,” wrote Chief Economist Frank Nothaft and his staff. “Heightened uncertainty, unfortunately, can be harmful to the overall economy. Perhaps it’s best not to look up nor down, but keep one’s eyes on the track ahead.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen M. Howley in Boston at kmhowley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kara Wetzel at kwetzel@bloomberg.net.

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