05 March 2010

Pending Sales of Existing U.S. Homes [Probably] Rose in January; Expect Slow Climb Ahead


The number of contracts to buy previously owned U.S. homes probably rose 1 percent in January for a second month, showing the extension of a tax credit is sparking limited interest, economists said before a private report today.

The renewal of a government incentive to first-time buyers, originally due to expire at the end of November, and its expansion to include current owners has yet to lure buyers back into the market after helping boost sales in 2009. A lack of jobs and mounting foreclosures have depressed confidence, indicating housing will take time to rebound.

“The earlier surge in sales last year spurred hope of a quick housing recovery, but it now appears the recovery will be more slowly paced,” said Aaron Smith, an economist at Moody’s Economy.com in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The National Association of Realtors is scheduled to release the report at 10 a.m. in Washington. Survey estimates ranged from a drop of 4.2 percent to an increase of 4 percent.

Other Sectors

A 10 a.m. report from the Commerce Department may show a surge in demand for commercial aircraft fueled a 1.8 percent increase in factory orders in January, the biggest gain in four months. A report on bookings for durable goods last week showed orders for capital equipment may have dropped, signaling business investment paused to start the year.

Fewer Claims

First-time filings for jobless benefits dropped by 29,000 to 469,000 last week, according to a Labor Department report today. The number of people receiving unemployment insurance decreased to the lowest level in a year, while those receiving extended benefits climbed.

The productivity of U.S. workers kept surging in the fourth quarter as companies squeezed more out of remaining employees to boost earnings, another Labor Department report showed today.

A measure of employee output per hour rose at a 6.9 percent annual rate, capping the biggest one-year gain since 2002, revised figures showed. Labor costs dropped at a 5.9 percent pace, more than anticipated, and fell 1.7 percent for all of 2009, the biggest drop since records began six decades ago.

Improvement in the labor market is needed to propel the economic recovery and stem the surge in home foreclosures that is holding down prices. Foreclosure filings rose 15 percent in January compared with a year earlier and exceeded 300,000 for the 11th straight month, RealtyTrac Inc. said Feb. 11.

Sales Slump

Reports last week showed the housing recovery may be faltering. Sales of previously owned homes unexpectedly dropped 7.2 percent in January after a record decrease a month earlier, according to the Realtors report on Feb. 26. New-home sales fell to the lowest on record, the Commerce Department said Feb. 24.

The housing market will “follow a similar pattern” to recovery as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which both took “several years,” Toll Brothers Inc. Chief Executive Officer Robert Toll said in a statement Feb. 24.

The company, the largest U.S. luxury-home builder, said its orders almost doubled in the first quarter compared with a year earlier. It projected it will sell between 2,100 and 2,750 homes in fiscal 2010 at an average price of $540,000 to $560,000.

Builder Shares

Builder shares have beat the broader market so far this year after another provision in the legislation extending the tax credit allowed construction companies to use losses incurred in 2008 and 2009 to recoup taxes on profits going back as many as five years, three more years than usual. Lennar Corp., KB Home and Ryland Group Inc. are among builders that have reported quarterly profits because of the tax refunds.

The Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Homebuilding Index has increased 12 percent this year, compared with a 0.3 percent rise in broader S&P 500.

Billionaire Warren Buffett said last week the U.S. residential real estate slump will end by about 2011.

“Within a year or so, residential housing problems should largely be behind us,” Buffett wrote Feb. 27 in his annual letter to shareholders of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc. “Prices will remain far below ‘bubble’ levels, of course, but for every seller or lender hurt by this, there will be a buyer who benefits.”

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