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.
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.
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