Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Housing Still Hasn't Bottomed

Housing starts for February came in at a better-than-expected 1.525 million. Several commentators jumped on this as evidence that the housing market has bottomed and that the economy is strong. They shouldn't celebrate.

Although the figure was 9% better than January's 1.399 million estimate, the 90% confidence interval is ±10.2 percentage points. In other words, there is a good chance housing starts did not rise at all. Furthermore, February's figure is 28.5% lower than it was a year earlier.

Housing is not out of the woods. The bust in the sub-prime mortgage market will continue, especially if the yield on the 10-year note starts to rise. This will force more homeowners into default as their monthly payments rise. The prime market, however, should be fine; unless the economy slows further and the unemployment rate begins to rise. At this time, I don't expect current problems in housing to cause a recession. Yet there is little doubt that economic growth will be more anemic than many economists had previously expected.