Four reasons to stay invested in US housing

Four reasons to stay invested in US housing
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The stock market’s wild ride over the last couple of months may have introduced a measure of uncertainty into the investment outlook for some sectors of the global economy. However, US housing was not one of them.

America’s housing market is continuing to grow faster than the economy overall. We are seeing a number of opportunities and remain constructive on the sector. Here are four reasons why.

1) Strong job growth and consumer confidence

The US economy has added roughly 3 million private sector jobs over the past year. This includes more than 750,000 new jobs in the 25- to 34-year-old cohort, an important segment for first-time buyers, a level that is near a 15-year high. A pickup in wage growth is likely given the improvement in the labor market; the unemployment rate declined by 2.5% in the past two years to reach 5.0%. We expect that more jobs and higher incomes will lead to rising consumer confidence and demand for homes, even in the face of modestly higher mortgage rates.

2) Low inventories and rising pent-up demand

Both the absolute level of inventory of new and existing homes (now 2.5 million units total) and inventory as a percentage of households (now 1.6%) are at or near 15-year lows. Over the past year, 1.5 million new households have formed; that compares with less than 1.2 million new housing units. In addition, over 30% of 18- to 34-year-olds are living at home. What does this mean? A lot of pent-up demand, and if it picks up, as we expect, housing starts will likely rise toward 1.5 million units (or higher) in the next two to three years. Simply put, with residential investment spending at 3.3% of GDP, the US has been significantly under-building relative to long-term demand (the 55-year average is 4.5% of GDP – see Figure 1).

3) Willingness to lend and expanding demand for credit

Banks are finally lending again! In reviewing second quarter 2015 earnings details, we noticed that mortgage origination growth at all four of the largest US banks rose by double digits. At the same time, banks are increasing their willingness to lend, households are becoming more confident, and many are now in a position to re-lever: Consumer debt service ratios are near 35-year lows. Importantly, a significant number of previously foreclosed homeowners could become eligible to buy a home over the next five years. As such, the demand and supply of credit is likely to pick up, which should support the US housing market.

4) Relative affordability

At this juncture, owning a house is incredibly cheap—both from a historical affordability perspective and relative to the cost of renting (see Figure 2). Although some have expressed concerns that rising rates will reduce affordability, keep in mind that it would take a two percentage point rise in mortgage rates to go back to the long-term average. A very modest pickup in mortgage rates, which are currently under 4%, can be handled by an economy adding 3 million jobs in the private sector alone, in our view.

How to take advantage of current trends

In many regions across the country, there is a significant shortage of housing inventory relative to job creation. In Orange County, California, for example, job growth is overwhelming housing inventory by a ratio of five to one. Our view based on the most recent data is that home ownership is cyclical: As housing prices rise, people become more confident, credit becomes more available. The most recent data on housing starts suggests a shift toward single family home construction. Home builder sentiment is at the highest level it’s been since November 2005. We expect companies tied to housing will see earnings growth much higher than the markets overall.

Investors seeking to capitalize on these trends should consider increasing their allocation to US housing and housing-related sectors. We continue to see value in select companies in areas such as building materials, home improvement, title insurance, homebuilding, banks, and specialty finance companies as well as in non-agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

Learn about PIMCO’s secular view on U.S. housing and other credit sectors.

Mark Kiesel is PIMCO’s CIO Global Credit.

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