Despite Braking Economy, Housing Moves Ahead
After re-accelerating late last year and during the initial months of 2012, the pace of economic growth and job creation has slowed more recently. In June, national employment expanded by just 80,000 jobs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. June represented the third consecutive month during which national job creation was well below 100,000 jobs. During the first three months of the year, the nation's average monthly employment gain was 226,000 jobs. During last year's fourth quarter, the nation's output expanded at a 3 percent annualized pace, but during the first half of 2012, the nation's economy expanded at a less than 2 percent pace.
Maryland has not been immune to the slowdown. Unemployment in Maryland has increased for a third consecutive month in May (6.8%) and the state has been losing jobs. Whether Maryland's economy will continue to decelerate in unclear. Also unclear is whether or not recently observed housing market momentum can persist in the face of broader macroeconomic weakness.
A recent Wall Street Journal article simply proclaimed that the "housing market has turned." Nationally, nearly 10 percent more existing homes were sold in May than in the same month one year earlier. Builders began work on 26 percent more single-family homes in May 2012 than a year earlier and the stock of unsold newly built homes is back to 2005 levels. A recent survey of 47 forecasters found that 44 believed that the housing market has reached its bottom.
Maryland has been participating in housing's recent recovery, but there are indications that the pace of recovery has slowed. Home sales statewide increased 10.5 percent in May on a year-over-year basis. But in June, the year-over-year was just 1.7 percent, with 11 Maryland jurisdictions reporting year-over-year sales gains. Many of the observed gains in unit sales, though certainly not all, took place among core metropolitan area jurisdictions. This is likely a reflection of the influence of first-time buyers, who have been setting off cascading sales dynamics. By contrast, in counties with less dense job markets and first-time buyer influence, sales growth has been less consistent.
Price dynamics remain positive in Maryland. In June, average price was up 6.7 percent on an annual basis while median price was up 8.5 percent. Sixteen jurisdictions experienced year-over-year increases in average sales prices and 19 reported increases in median sales prices in June. Certain jurisdictions continue to experience falling home prices, however, including a number of Eastern Shore jurisdictions: Dorchester County (average price declined 55.8%; median price up 0.1%), Kent County (average price slipped 18.8%; median price fell 25.9%), Somerset County (average price dipped 9.4%; median price fell 18.9%), and Worcester County (average price slid 14.4%; median price decreased 17.2%).
Despite growing confidence among economists, there are reasons to remain nervous about the housing industry. Consumer confidence is declining again and job growth slowed dramatically during the second quarter relative to the first both nationally and in Maryland. The next several months should be months of progress, however. Pending sales in Maryland were up on a year-over-year basis in both May (+375 units) and June (+282 units). In June 2011, Maryland's supply of housing inventory stood at 7 months. A year later, inventory had declined to 5.1 months - a level consistent with rising home prices and greater urgency among prospective buyers.
Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, Maryland. Basu is one of the Mid-Atlantic region's most recognizable economists, in part because of his consulting work on behalf of numerous clients, including prominent developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers and law firms. On behalf of government agencies and non-profit organizations, Basu has written several high-profile economic development strategies, including co-authoring Baltimore City's economic growth strategy. His opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of 1st Mariner Bank.