With 30-year mortgage rates having risen by a full percentage point in recent weeks, investors are selling homebuilder stocks on fears that the rebound in prices that has been in place for over a year will come to a screeching halt. But is that really the correct takeaway with mortgage rates still sitting at just 4.5%? I’m not so sure.
While there is no doubt that rising rates will cut into refinance activity in a major way, I do not think the thesis for being bullish on housing demand is dented by the recent rate increase. The main reason is because I do not think the housing market rebound was as much due to falling rates as it was the structural normalization of the supply/demand picture within housing more generally.
Let’s think about this. The dramatic collapse in housing prices (down 30% peak-to-trough nationally) was caused by the simultaneous divergence of supply and demand. Demand for new homes collapsed during the recession due to soaring unemployment and general economic uncertainty, both of which reduced the desire to buy a new home. And many of those who actually wanted to buy could not get a loan because the banks were in retreat, just trying to manage through the downturn and stem their credit losses. At the same time, housing supply was soaring due to record foreclosure rates, which flooded the market with homes available for sale, despite the lack of buyer demand. Those two factors combined meant that home prices had nowhere to go but down, and the drop was precipitous.
So what has been behind the rebound in home sales and prices since the housing market bottomed nationally in 2012? Was it just mortgage rates going from 5% to 4% to 3.5%? Was it a loosening of credit standards? To an extent, sure, both of those factors contributed to some of the turnaround. However, I believe other factors had more of an impact.
For instance, for several years the industry essentially stopped building to allow the market to absorb all of the foreclosures. Now that foreclosures have dropped dramatically, the builders have begun to really crank up new home construction. In addition, demand has been helped by a combination of loosening credit standards and an improving employment picture. As a result, home demand is rising as new households are formed and they are in a position (both from a financial and underwriting perspective) to not only qualify for a new home loan, but also afford one.
My main point here is that the demand for housing now has less to do with interest rates and more to do with household formation and the ability to get and pay for a mortgage. That should be the case even if mortgage rates are 5% (instead of 3.5% or 4%) because those rates are still very low on a historical basis and do not really flip the home affordability equation away from buying. If 30-year mortgage rates went to 8% the story might change, but that is simply not in the cards. If I am right and the housing market rebound has more to to with underlying structural supply and demand trends than interest rates, then the housing uptrend should continue even if rates go up a bit more in the coming months. In that scenario, the homebuilders will continue to see volumes and profit margins increase, which will support stronger stock prices than the stock market is pricing in right now.