Housebuilder Persimmon reports today that sales of its houses are up strongly so far this year. Does this mean the housing market slowdown is over?
No. It is a howling error to infer anything about macroeconomic conditions from the experience of one particular company. No sensible person would infer from the bankruptcies of Courts and Allders that retail sales collapsed last year. Why then infer from Persimmon’s success that the housing market is strong? The fact is that many companies thrive in downturns and many fail in booms; even in the 1990-91 recession, huge numbers of firms did very well, as this book shows.
Maybe Persimmon’s results merely demonstrate this fact.
Indeed, aggregate numbers suggest housing turnover is has fallen sharply. Figures from the Bank of England show that the number of mortgage approvals in December were 37.1 per cent down on last December (page 3 of this pdf – more figures are out tomorrow). And this pdf from the Inland Revenue shows that property transactions in January were 28.7 per cent down on last January.
This matters, because falls in housing turnover can be a leading indicator of falling prices. The house price falls of 1989-90, 1992 and the slowdown in 2000 were all preceded by downturns in turnover.
There’s a simple reason for this. Sellers’ asking prices tend to be stickier than buyers’ offer prices. This is because asking prices depend partly upon private valuations of one’s own house as well as upon market conditions, whereas offer prices are a purer reflection of market conditions. The upshot is that if the outlook for the housing market deteriorates, offer prices will fall relative to asking prices. The result will be fewer transactions as buyers and sellers fail to agree a price. It is only after a few months, when sellers’ asking prices adjust, that house prices will fall.
This stickiness of asking prices can also mean that house price indices overstate the true strength of the housing market when turnover falls – because the houses that change hands are a biased sample of all the houses on the market. This pdf by Will Goetzmann estimates that this bias can cause measured price indices to overstate true prices by around 5 per cent in a downturn.
Of course, it’s still a matter of debate whether house prices will fall sharply or not.
What we can say though Persimmon’s results don’t add much to the picture.
They do, though, look like perpetuating one of the stock market’s more curious anomalies – the seasonal pattern in house-building stocks.
Since 1986, Datastream’s index of house-builders has out-performed the market 17 times out of 19 in the first quarter of the year. In the other three quarters it has out-performed only 21 out of 57 times.