Yellen offers hostage to fortune on US growth

US auto home Jul15Previous chairs of the US Federal Reserve had a poor record when it came to forecasting key events:

  • Alan Greenspan, at the peak of the subprime housing bubble in 2005, published a detailed analysis that emphasised how house prices had never declined on a national basis
  • Ben Bernanke, at the start of the financial crisis in 2007, reassured everyone that at worst, the cost would be no more than $100bn

So we must hope that current chair, Janet Yellen, has better luck with her forecast last week that:

“Looking forward, prospects are favorable for further improvement in the U.S. labor market and the economy more broadly”

The chart above will be key to the answer, as the outlook for the economy greatly depends on developments in the auto and housing markets:

Auto markets.  From the outside, these seem to have recovered well since the 2008 financial crisis.  But the National Auto Dealers Association suggested this month that sales have likely peaked, warning – “This is a cyclical industry, and there is no escaping the consumer cycle”.  Prices also look to have peaked, with JD Power reporting these averaged $30,452.  Buyers are only able to afford these prices due to the combination of low interest rates and extended loan terms, which now average a record 67.9 months.

A further threat to the market comes from increasing availability of used cars.  Around 40 million of these are normally sold each year, dwarfing the new car market.  But used cars have been in short short supply until recently, due to the post-Crisis collapse of new car sales in 2009-10.  Today, however, used car availability is booming after the bumper new car sales of recent years, as a major dealer told the Houston Chronicle:

Right now there are a substantial number of cars coming off lease, which is very good for us because at long last we have a nice supply of what we call lower-mileage pre-owned cars.

Housing.  As the chart confirms, home starts have not recovered to previous levels, but are less than half previous peaks.  The reason is demographics – the purple period from 1973 – 1984 saw vast numbers of BabyBoomers buying their first houses, having children, and then buying larger houses.  Greenspan’s ill-advised low interest rate policy in the 2000s failed to replicate this type of sustainable demand – instead, it simply allowed poorer people with poor credit ratings to buy houses they couldn’t afford, and ended up losing to foreclosure.

The latest data confirms that now a new trend is underway, where the Boomers downsize and move back into the cities from the suburbs.  41% of new home starts in June were multi-unit rather than single family, a near-record high, as Boomers and young people found condominium living more affordable.  Even worse from Ms Yellen’s viewpoint is that the home ownership rate continues to fall, and at 63.7% is back at levels last seen 20 years ago.  The rate for minorities is even lower at just 47.2%, and for Afro-Americans it is only 43.8%.

Ms Yellen’s problem is therefore two-fold:

  • She desperately needs to raise rates in September, to avoid becoming involved in the political debate when the Presidential primary season starts new year.  Yet both the IMF and World Bank have warned this would put the recovery at risk by causing the dollar to rise even further, thus reducing exports
  • Her underlying theories on the economy continue to take no account of demographic changes.  Common sense tells us that the arrival of a generation of 65-year-old Boomers with 20 years’ life expectancy must considerably change US growth potential.  Equally important is that US fertility rates have been below replacement level since 1970 – meaning there are now relatively few people in the peak spending 25 – 54 Wealth Creator generation.

It therefore seems very likely that Ms Yellen has offered a hostage to fortune when forecasting that the economy will now finally recover.

Past performance is not always a good guide to the future, but it is the best that we have.  Prudent companies and investors will therefore want to ensure they are not caught out a 3rd time if the Fed’s forecasts turn out to be wrong again.

US housing markets weaken as home ownership levels fade

US house starts Feb15Data over the past month continues to confirm my fears that the US housing recovery is going into reverse.  The argument was summed up yesterday by S&P’s chairman, when reporting Case/Shiller housing price data for December:

“The housing recovery is faltering. While prices and sales of existing homes are close to normal, construction and new home sales remain weak. Before the current business cycle, any time housing starts were at their current level of about one million at annual rates, the economy was in a recession”.

Last month should have been a good month for the housing market, as January 2014 was marked by some of the worst winter weather ever seen in the US.  Yet existing home sales last month were up just 3.2% versus 2014, and even fell 4.9% versus December’s already weak figure.

A survey by the National Association of Realtors highlights one key reason, that homeowners now tend to stay 10 years in a home before moving, rather the 7 years that was common in the past.  The problem is that prices are too expensive for younger people, and so the percentage of first time buyers is now down to 28%, compared to the 40%+ level common when the market was booming.

Another key element is in the chart above, which shows home ownership rates since 1980 from the US Census Bureau.  It highlights how increased home ownership became a national policy under President Clinton.  He consciously aimed to boost home ownership, as he set out in 1995 when launching the new policy:

“It seems to me that we have a serious, serious unmet obligation to try to reverse these trends (of lower home ownership). As Secretary Cisneros says, this drop in home ownership means 1.5 million families who would now be in their own homes if the 46 years of home ownership expansion had not been reversed in the 1980′s.

Now we have begun to expand it again. Since 1993, nearly 2.8 million new households have joined the ranks of America’s homeowners, nearly twice as many as in the previous 2 years. But we have to do a lot better. The goal of this strategy, to boost home ownership to 67.5 percent by the year 2000, would take us to an all-time high, helping as many as 8 million American families across that threshold”.

The policy was continued after Clinton, as subprime lending to lower income groups took a major role in the housing market.  But the peak home ownership rate proved to be 69% in 2004-5.  Since then it has been sliding steadily downwards, and was back at 1995′s rate of 64% in Q4 last year.

It seems safe to assume this decline will continue.  As January’s housing start data confirmed, there is now a clear new trend, towards multi-family housing, which is now 36% of the total – double the percentage in 1995.  The BabyBoomers are moving back to the cities as they retire, and the decline in fertility rates means younger people have less reason to need a family-size home in the suburbs.

Some of these trends were obscured during the energy bubble of the past few years.  Hundreds of thousands moved to work in the oil and gas producing states, and naturally created major demand for new housing.  But now even that support is being reversed as well, as I discussed last month, as oil prices return to historical levels.

Oil price collapse will likely end recovery in US housing starts

US housing Jan15We now have full US Census Bureau data for housing starts in 2014, which shows:

  • Starts returned to the 1m level for the first time since 2007
  • They were also nearly double the low of 554k seen in 2009
  • But at 1.006m, they were less than half of the 2.068m peak in 2005

The data also confirms the dramatic swing away from single-family homes towards multi-family apartments.  These were one-third of total starts in 2014, around double the average seen between 1989 – 2007, and back to levels last seen around 40 years ago – before the BabyBoomer home boom began.

The data is also a sign of the overall decline in home ownership levels, which at 64.4% are back to 1995 levels, when records first began.  As with employment, there is also a major divide between ownership rates for the relatively wealthy White population at 72.6%, and those for the poorer Hispanic (45.6%) and Black populations (42.9).

Equally significant is the data for the major regions in the US since 2009, as the chart above shows:

  • The largest gain has been in the South, which averaged 500k starts in 2014 versus 260k in 2009
  • The West also saw a large percentage gain, with starts doubling to 235k in 2014 versus 115k in 2009
  • Gains in the North East and Mid-West were more modest at 50k and 65k respectively

US drilling Jan15

As the map from the US Energy Information Agency on the right shows, 3 of these regions have also seen strong growth in oil/shale gas-related activity.

It highlights the 7 most prolific areas, responsible for all domestic natural gas production growth, and 95% of all domestic oil production growth, between 2011-2013.

Clearly it would need more detailed study to directly link this data with growth in housing starts.  But we do know that workers have flocked to these regions in search of jobs.

Separate Census data shows that Houston had the 2nd fastest growth in population in 2013 (after New York), and Texas had 3 of the top 10 cities in the list of fastest growing cities.

And according to the Census, Texas added more housing units than any other state as a result.

But now, the boom is turning to bust, and companies are laying off workers – particularly in labour-intensive areas such as drilling and support services.  Major job losses are already underway at Schlumberger and other key employers.

We won’t know till March or April just how bad the hit will be to housing. But it seems more than likely it will end the recent recovery in housing starts, taking 2015 levels back below the 1m level again.

US home ownership back at 1995 level as decline continues


US housing Dec14bConventional wisdom seemed to think the US housing report was positive this week.  But analysis of the data makes it hard to see why.

One confusion comes from media use of the ‘seasonally adjusted’ number.  But why do we need an adjustment, when we have data going back to 1959?  It simply creates more potential for error.  The chart on the left, for example, uses the raw data to give a 10-year view of the monthly pattern:

  • Momentum has clearly been waning through 2014 (red line) versus 2013 (green)
  • Starts are up 7% so far this year, after a 16% rise in 2013 and a 21% rise in 2012
  • November’s decline suggests the market has already peaked, rather than being in recovery mode

A second confusion comes from focusing on just a monthly number, and not seeing the bigger picture.

The right-hand chart shows developments in home ownership since 1995, when records begin.  It shows very clearly that ownership peaked at 69.2% in 2004.  Q3 Census Bureau data shows it is now back at 1995 levels of 64.4%.

Neither chart therefore supports the idea that this week’s data was positive.  Not does analysis of US home price developments, which shows prices have plateaued in recent months. The reason is that a strong market would need large numbers of young people to be buying first homes.  But today:

  • The relatively wealthy white BabyBoomers are now moving ever-closer to retirement
  • The youngest is now 50 and the oldest is 68
  • The key to future house sales lies with the younger demographics – who are mainly Black and Hispanic
  • But they earn much less than whites on average, so their ability to afford today’s prices is much more limited

The problem, of course, is that financial markets don’t really care about this level of analysis.  The average holding period for a stock is now only 3 – 4 months.  So players are simply looking for a trading buzz – a quick headline to make the indices jump up or down.

This creates a very dangerous environment for companies and investors, as price discovery is not taking place in the market on the basis of real supply and demand fundamentals.  Instead, it is being driven by random headlines.

We’ve seen the consequence of this in oil markets in recent months.  Conventional wisdom said these would always stay at $100/bbl.  And now people in the real world are having to pick up the pieces from this mistake.

US housing fraud rises as first-time buyers priced out of market

US housing Dec14Signs of stress seem to be appearing in the US housing market once more.  Thus the Wall Street Journal reports:

An estimated one in seven appraisals conducted from 2011 through early 2014 inflated home values by 20% or more..Bankers, appraisers and federal officials in interviews said inflated appraisals are becoming more widespread as the recovery in the housing market cools.”

The problem is that recent price rises have been driven by investors, not actual home buyers, as RealtyTrac warned back in July:

When we look at our data, it’s clear that the home price recovery has been largely driven by investors and other cash buyers.  As those investors and cash buyers slow down their purchases, the big question becomes, will demand from owner-occupant buyers be enough to keep the sales and prices moving higher?”

Today, it seems clear their concern was well-founded.  As the chart shows, latest data for the S&P Case-Shiller Index suggests prices began to plateau in June.  Seasonal trends may well cause them to gently weaken by year-end.

The problem is that the investor buying spree means prices are now too high for many potential first-time buyers, as the second chart shows.

US housing Dec14a

The reason is that the US now effectively contains two distinct racial groups with very different profiles:

  • Whites earn $42k/year and have median age of 42 years: Asians earn $49K and have median age of 37 years
  • Blacks earn $33k and have median age of 33 years: Hispanics earn $30k and have median age of 28 years
  • There are 84m white and 6m Asian households: there are 14m Hispanic and 16m Black households

Superficially, the average ratio seems reasonable at 7.6x earnings, close to the 7.4x ratio for Whites.  But the Whites are mainly ageing BabyBoomers, who are moving beyond their peak home-buying period.  Often, they are moving back to the cities and buying cheaper multi-family apartments instead of single homes.

The younger Black and Hispanic households have instead to do the ‘heavy lifting’ on home buying.  But:

  • Median earnings for Blacks are around 20% less than for Whites, and 25% less for Hispanics
  • Thus the average home price/earnings ratio is 9.4x for Blacks and an eye-popping 10.1x for Hispanics.

In addition, 8% of Hispanics and 12% of Blacks are unemployed, versus only 5% of Whites.  Thus first-time home buyers have been a declining part of the market since 2010:

  • Their share was around 40% of the market in the earlier 2000s, and jumped to 50% in 2010 as house prices fell
  • But since then it has been falling steadily, and is now just 33% – the lowest level since 1987
  • Similarly, new mortgage lending is now at a 13-year low
  • And new home sales since 2009 have been running at levels not seen since 1982

The rising amount of fraud in the house price appraisal system is thus a warning sign that the fundamentals of the US housing market are weakening once more.


China becomes major PVC, PTA exporter for first time in history

China PVC Oct14Be very careful what you wish for.  That is the key message coming out of close analysis of China’s latest trade data.

Recent media reports were upbeat at news that China’s exports had increased, as it appeared to suggest Western demand was returning.  But it seems nothing could be further from the truth.

One major concern is that part of the increase was due to the final convulsions of the collateral trade, as I will discuss tomorrow.  Property developers are clearly making last desperate efforts to raise cash by any possible means

A second critical issue is that the data confirms that China is now becoming a major exporter of high value products, such as PVC and PTA, for the first time in history.

PVC highlights the change underway, as data from Global Trade Information Services shows.  PVC is one of the world’s major plastics, used in drainage pipes and windows by the construction industry.  As recently as 2009, when its stimulus programme began, China was the world’s largest importer.

Its net imports in 2009 totalled nearly 1.5 million tonnes, coming mainly from Asia and the US.  But since then it has been busy expanding its own production.  By 2012, its domestic output had jumped 70% from 9MT to 15.25MT.  As a result of this, and the start of the housing market slowdown, its 2012 net imports halved to 665kt.

Since then, further major change has taken place as the chart shows, based on January – September data:

  • Critically, China is no longer a net importer of PVC
  • Its total imports have fallen to just 608KT in 2014 (red column) versus 816kt in 2012 (blue column)
  • Its total exports have risen from 285KT to 949kt over the same period
  • As a result, it has become a net exporter of 341kt

This change in policy by China was confirmed a year ago at the 3rd Plenum.  And its impact has been building since May.

  • The big loser so far has been the USA, despite its cost advantage due to shale gas developments
  • China’s imports from the US are already down 34% versus 2012 levels
  • And at the same time, China has been gaining export market share, partly at US expense
  • It has sold 364kt into India so far this year and 175kt into SE Asia
  • Exports to the Former Soviet Union have doubled from 124kt in 2012 to 277kt this year.

It also seems highly unlikely that China will change course.  Most of its PVC production is coal-based, and it is strategically important for the country to maximise use of this resource, given its wider energy deficit.  PVC production also maintains employment in the coal regions – which is critical for social stability.

Developments in PTA, the raw material for polyester, confirm the major change now underway:

  • China was importing 6.5MT of PTA as recently as 2011, but volumes more than halved to just 2.76MT in 2013
  • In January – September  2014, import volumes have more than halved versus 2013 to under 1MT
  • China has also begun exporting PTA for the first time in history, with volume of 340kt by September
  • On current trends, China could also be a net exporter of PTA by this time next year

Companies and investors seem so far to have preferred to ignore these developments.  But China’s drive towards self-sufficiency is unlikely to reverse.  And social stability means it has to replace its lost export-oriented jobs in low-margin textile and other industries via a move up the value chain.

Thus very soon, one suspects, the Western media will be reporting howls of pain instead of cheers as China’s export surge continues.