To its credit, Fannie Mae did not expect soaring growth in the 2014 housing market in the first place. But even its hopes for modest growth have cooled as the lingering effects of a harsh winter and a combination of reduced affordability and consumer reticence regarding mortgages weigh down the national housing market.
In its latest economic forecast, released Wednesday, Fannie reported that housing remains the weakest link in the national economy. Through the first three months of 2014, existing-home sales, new single-family home sales, single-family housing starts, and multifamily housing starts all declined year-over-year.
Fannie found that existing-home sales, which comprised roughly 90 percent of sales activity in March, edged down 0.2 percent to 4.59 million—the slowest sales pace since July 2012. Sales of lower-priced homes also showed a dramatic year-over-year decline, which Fannie attributes to less demand from investors.
The new homes market plunged 14.5 percent in March, an eight-month low. However, this sharp decline in sales amid slowly growing supply pushed the months’ supply nationally up to six months, in line with the historical average and a marked improvement for an inventory that just a few months ago was less than four months in some areas.
Still, Fannie is hanging on to its cautious optimism. Resales, for example, edged up by 0.2 percent in March, only the second time in nine months that an uptick occurred there. Fannie is also pinning hope for slow-but-steady growth on the results of its April consumer survey, which showed that 42 percent of those polled think it’s a good time to sell. “As consumers become more confident in the selling environment and more supply enters the market, it will help to boost housing turnover,” Fannie reported.
Fannie is also optimistic—if guardedly so—that the spring and summer buying seasons will bring modest gains in the housing market. The agency’s tempered optimism is a slight backpedalling from its beginning-of-the-year predictions that spring itself would usher in a steady rebound in housing.
Standing in the way, however, is the impending rise in mortgage rates, which are expected to end the year above 5 percent, and tightening lending regulations that, while designed to keep Americans from overspending, make it tough for many banks to write mortgages.
On the plus side, Fannie found that pending home sales, which record contract signings on existing-home sales and typically lead closings by one to two months, broke a streak of eight consecutive monthly declines in March by rising 3.4 percent. This was their highest level since November. And purchase mortgage applications continued to trend up modestly from the nearly two-decade low they hit in February, but were still down more than 20 percent from the previous April.
A main constraint for potential homebuyers remains banks’ willingness to lend. The Federal Reserve Board Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey, released quarterly, has shown continued tightening in subprime and nontraditional mortgages. However, Fannie believes recovery hinges on people more than regulations. “Given the current regulatory landscape, we believe rising employment and income are more likely to bolster housing demand rather than easing credit conditions,” Fannie reported.