Minutes recently released from the 2006 meetings of Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) offer some disturbing insights into the failure of Fed officials to understand how deeply intertwined the housing sector and financial markets are. This New York Times piece goes into much detail regarding this and other less-than-flattering aspects of these meetings. While residential investment represents a tiny four percent (4%) of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), it has far reaching backward- and forward-linkages into many other components of GDP, such as construction, construction materials, durable goods, home furnishings, brokerage and financial services. For this reason, it is often said that when it comes to the strong effect residential investment has on the economy, that housing is the “tail that wags the dog.”
When evaluating where we are in the housing cycle, it is often useful to evaluate fundamental valuation metrics and compare current trends versus historical averages. Below is a graph (click to enlarge) depicting the national price-to-rent ratio, which depicts how homes are trading relative to their rental values. This metric is similar to the P/E (price/earnings) ratio typically used in analyzing the stock market.
This graph uses the Case-Shiller Composite 20 and CoreLogic House Price Index, and sets the baseline period at January 1998, which is assigned a value of 1.0. The current ratio (as of October 2011) on both indices is at 2000 levels, indicating that we are very close to long-run historic average metrics. While foreclosures/short sales (lagging economic indicators) still account for a significant share of existing home sales, the good news is that delinquency rates (leading economic indicators) are gradually diminishing. As such, we can expect home prices to bounce around gently for several months, then gradually start to recover based on improving fundamentals.