Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sales of New Houses in U.S. Probably Fell: U.S. Economy Preview

By Bob Willis

Dec. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Sales of new homes in the U.S. fell in November, signaling no end to the housing recession that threatens to stall economic growth, economists said before a report this week.

Purchases fell to an annual pace of 718,000 from 728,000 in October, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. The 716,000 pace reached in September was the lowest since 1996.

The real-estate slump, already the deepest in 16 years, shows no sign of abating as discounts fail to lure buyers and inventories swell. The risk that the slowdown will spread through the entire economy is prompting business to rein in orders for new equipment, a separate report may also show.

``We're not in line for any good news on housing for a long period of time,'' said Mike Schenk, chief economist at the Credit Union National Association, in Madison, Wisconsin. ``It's a sector that will take a long time to turn around.''

The home-sale figures are due Dec. 28 from the Commerce Department in Washington.

The housing recession has deepened since the subprime mortgage crisis in August led to a worldwide credit shortage. Stricter borrowing standards and a freeze on subprime lending put mortgages out of reach for some buyers.

Sales of new houses probably will drop an additional 8.9 percent in 2008 after tumbling 25 percent this year, according to a Dec. 13 forecast from Fannie Mae, the largest mortgage buyer. Sales of new homes in October were already 48 percent down from their July 2005 peak.

Prices Falling

Builders and homeowners are dropping prices to try to drum up interest. Home prices fell 4.5 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, the most in at least two decades, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index released Nov. 27. The report on the October readings is due Dec. 26.

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. is forecasting prices will fall at least 15 percent from peak to trough.

Foreclosures are rising as prices fall and loans become tougher to get. Foreclosures rose 68 percent in November from a year earlier and may surge in 2008 as resets on adjustable-rate mortgages leave some borrowers unable to make higher payments, according to a report from RealtyTrac Inc. on Dec. 19.

Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., New Jersey's largest homebuilder, is among companies scaling back.

Hovnanian plans to ``pare down our inventories in virtually all our markets,'' Chief Executive Officer Ara Hovnanian said on a conference call Dec. 19. ``It will be a difficult year.''

Housing's Influence

Housing starts are near a 14-year low and have fallen 48 percent since their January 2006 peak. Falling home construction has detracted from economic growth for the last seven quarters, and economists are expecting the drag to continue into 2008.

Weak home construction is rippling across the economy, reducing demand for housing materials, appliances and furniture, while also weakening job growth as builders, mortgage companies and manufacturers reduce payrolls.

Another report from Commerce on Dec. 27 may show orders for goods meant to last several years rose 2 percent in November, the first increase in four months. The gain was led by a jump in demand for commercial aircraft, which tends to be volatile from month to month, economists said.

``With orders for civilian aircraft and defense goods often skewing these figures, attention focuses on underlying details, which have been on the weak side for the previous three months,'' said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at Maria Fiorini Ramirez Inc., a New York forecasting firm.

Threat to Spending

The slump in housing also threatens to undermine consumer spending, which makes up more than two-thirds of the economy, as falling home prices leave owners with less equity to tap.

Still, a report last week showed spending remains resilient against the headwinds from housing and rising fuel prices. Purchases jumped in November by the most in more than two years, the Commerce Department said.

Before that report, economists had been saying the odds of recession were growing. The world's largest economy will probably expand at a 1 percent annual pace this quarter and at a 1.5 percent rate in the first three months of next year, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed this month.

`The probability of recession is 50 percent for next year at some point,'' Martin Feldstein, head of the National Bureau of Economic Research, which determines when contractions start and end, said in a Dec. 14 interview. ``We could see a downturn starting sometime in the spring.''



Bloomberg News

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Release Period Prior Median
Indicator Date Value Forecast
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Case Shiller Monthly YO 12/26 Oct. -5.0% -5.7%
Case Shiller Monthly In 12/26 Oct. 195.6 193.7
Durables Orders MOM% 12/27 Nov. -0.2% 2.0%
Durables Ex-Trans MOM% 12/27 Nov. -0.4% 0.5%
Initial Claims ,000's 12/27 Dec. 23 346 340
Cont. Claims ,000's 12/27 Dec. 16 2646 2630
Consumer Conf Index 12/27 Dec. 87.3 86.5
Chicago PM Index 12/28 Dec. 52.9 51.8
New Home Sales ,000's 12/28 Nov. 728 718
New Home Sales MOM% 12/28 Nov. 1.7% -1.4%
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To contact the reporter on this story: Bob Willis in Washington at bwillis@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: December 23, 2007 09:25 EST

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