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At 10:00 a.m. ET today, the National Association of Realtors will come out with its existing home sales numbers for last month. The report should help us get a clearer sense of activity in the housing market and economy.
In December, existing-home sales rose a seasonally adjusted 5% from the previous month, or 3.6% year over year. The market is expecting to see the figure edge up slightly to 4.63 million in January. We'll also get an update on how large the housing inventory is, and what is the median price.
Obviously, the housing glut has been an issue, not just for homebuilders, but also for the financial system and economy at large. However, we've been seeing fairly good home-sale numbers since late last year. A continuation of that trend would obviously be good news for troubled names like Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , which has more than $600 billion in residential mortgage and other consumer loans and a struggling mortgage division, and even for JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , which has a $400 billion chunk of consumer and residential loans, despite its much smaller residential mortgage unit.
But the rest of the Dow (INDEX: ^DJI ) -- particularly its cyclical- and U.S. consumer-oriented components -- stand to gain from an improving real estate market.
In ordinary recessions, the Federal Reserve can lower interest rates to help restimulate economic growth and fuel recovery. The recent recession was so severe, though, that the models the Fed uses prescribed deeply negative interest rates. Obviously, you can't cut rates below zero, so that's a problem. But another unusual issue that hasn't gotten as much attention (though the Fed and White House have begun to focus on it more in recent months) has been the fact that, with so many banks too weak or too reluctant to extend credit, and so many homes underwater, mortgage activity was weak. And if people aren't buying homes, they're not getting the full benefit of low interest rates. That's a drag on the recovery.
Residential mortgage REITs like Annaly Capital (NYSE: NLY ) and American Capital Agency (Nasdaq: AGNC ) have been some of the biggest beneficiaries of this dilemma. They get to enjoy the wide interest-rate spreads that go along with low short-term rates, without having to deal with the high prepayment levels you'd ordinarily see. Annaly recently said it expects this phenomenon to persist, but if home homebuyers start getting credit again and sales pick up, that'll be something to keep an eye on.
For the rest of the market, though, declining levels of household debt, more available credit for creditworthy borrowers, and cheaper interest payments can't come soon enough. And today we'll get to see another piece of how our tentative recovery is progressing.
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