Picture of the Day: Homeowners' Hangover

More bad news for owners of homebuilding stocks: For the third month running, the National Association of Home Builders, in cooperation with Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) (NAHB/WFC), is reporting a decline in its Housing Market Index.

After cresting at a "high" of 22 (you need to break 50 before Toll Bros. (NYSE: TOL  ) and Pulte (NYSE: PHM  ) begin to break out the Champagne) in May, the composite HMI index has fallen steadily to land with a thud at 13 yesterday, its lowest level since March of '09. Here are the three components of the composite:

And yet ... why is it that "March of '09" rings a bell? Oh yes -- I remember. Because March 6, 2009, was the date the S&P 500 index hit its recession low of 676 -- before skyrocketing 60% to where it sits today. Could it be we're getting set up for a repeat performance?

Do you see what I see?
Now, I don't want to delve too deeply into Pollyanna punditry here -- the numbers look bad, and there's no denying it. But within the gloom, I do detect glimmers of hope.

Government tax credits for new-home-buying expired in April, you see. Quite naturally, foot traffic through model homes has dwindled, since. But for two months now, the level of traffic has held steady at the "10" level (admittedly, 10 out of 100). Meanwhile, two of the biggest names in home goods retailing, Lowe's (NYSE: LOW  ) and Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) , just reported improved profits and rising same-store sales. A third, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , says its comps are down, but overall sales and profits improved relative to last year.

Foolish takeaway
Could the stabilization in foot traffic be a "data blip," or even [gasp!] a pause before the next plunge? Yes. Don't discount the possibility. But on the other hand, one more month of "10"-level prospective buyer traffic could be enough to establish a foundation under the housing market, something that Toll and Pulte -- and Lennar (NYSE: LEN  ) and Ryland (NYSE: RYL  ) besides -- can build on. If this is as bad as it gets, then the homebuilders can right-size their balance sheets to take account of that fact, and begin growing profits from the new normal.

As hopes go, I admit this is a slim one. But for today, it's all we've got. Tune in again next month, and we'll see if it's got merit.

Take the Foolish Rorschach test. Do you see something different in today's chart? Tell us about it below.

Home Depot, Lowe's Companies, and Wal-Mart Stores are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. The Fool owns shares of Lowe's Companies, but Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. Rich is not a licensed economist, but he plays one on the Web. Check out his latest stock recommendations on Motley Fool CAPS. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 17, 2010, at 4:50 PM, czelbst wrote:

    I wonder if one were to overlay the unemployment history from January '09 if there would be significant correlation between 'Current Single-Family Home Sales' and the lack of job growth?

  • Report this Comment On August 18, 2010, at 12:18 AM, TrackGoldmanSach wrote:

    I wouldn't be surprised if there is -- but there would be a chicken/egg issue there. A lot of jobs are tied to the building of these houses. Would be hard to say whether the houses aren't selling because people have no income, or whether people are losing their jobs because houses aren't getting built.

    Most likely, a bit of both.


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