Lending was up and home sales increased in most of the 12 Federal Reserve districts, according to the latest Beige Book released Wednesday by the central bank.
Here’s what the book says about the real estate and mortgage finance space, with a little spice from free, stock photography provided by soon-to-be released movie "Unfinished Business." The back story on that movie promotion is found here.
Reports from the twelve Federal Reserve Districts indicate that economic activity continued to expand across most regions and sectors from early January through mid-February.
Home sales increased in most Districts, while reports on residential construction were mixed. Commercial real estate market conditions remained stable or improved across the Districts.
Banking conditions generally improved, and credit quality remained largely unchanged.
Payrolls remained stable or expanded across the Districts, and contacts noted employment gains in a broad range of sectors. Wage pressures remained moderate and were limited largely to workers in skilled occupations.
Residential real estate conditions were mixed across the Districts. Home sales and prices increased in most Districts; construction activity was mixed, with some Districts reporting disruptions due to severe weather. Residential sales increased in Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, St. Louis, Dallas, and San Francisco. Sales fell in Cleveland and Kansas City. Contacts in New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland partially attributed lower construction to inclement weather conditions.
Contacts in Boston noted low levels of inventory due, in part, to inclement weather. Reports noted that low levels of inventory and lack of desirable lots continue to slow the market: Contacts in Boston, Cleveland, Kansas City, and San Francisco cited a lack of available inventory, while contacts in Cleveland and Richmond noted a lack of available lots. Single-family building permits increased in St. Louis and San Francisco. Contacts in Cleveland, Atlanta, Kansas City, and Minneapolis reported flat to declining real estate construction.
Reports on banking conditions were mostly positive across the Districts. Overall loan demand increased in all reporting Districts, with the exception of Kansas City, where loan demand was mixed. Reports on the pace of increase varied from slight in Richmond and Dallas to strong in Atlanta and New York. Commercial real estate loan demand was strong in Philadelphia and Cleveland. Commercial loan demand increased in New York, was particularly strong in Cleveland and Atlanta, was steady in Kansas City, and was mixed in Richmond. Residential lending was positive at all reporting banks, with bankers in Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago, and San Francisco noting an increase in refinancing activity.
December saw a strong end to 2014, with closed sales of single family homes increasing in all six New England states compared with December 2013. Condominium sales also increased in every state except Massachusetts. The median sales price for single-family homes continued to rise in every state except Connecticut (where prices decreased), while condominium prices rose in Massachusetts and Vermont but declined in Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Contacts in Connecticut and Rhode Island emphasized that while Realtors are feeling very positive, the housing market will not be fully "normal" until shadow inventory and distressed sales are reduced further. In other states, lack of inventory remains a concern. In Massachusetts, for example, December was only the second month of the past six with a year-over-year increase in home sales, while prices have increased 26 out of the last 27 months. Contacts in Massachusetts believe these patterns are driven primarily by a shortage of inventory. The level of inventory heading into January in Massachusetts is the lowest in a decade, with only 3.7 months of supply for single family homes and 2.3 months of supply in the condominium market (Realtors say the market is balanced when a 6- to 7-month supply is available).
First District contacts express concern about the possible lasting impact of the unusually harsh recent weather. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, where January data are available, pending and closed sales were down. Contacts across New England report that demand, despite the weather, remains strong but that new listings and hence inventory will decline as homeowners continue to dig themselves out. As one contact in Massachusetts says "the weather will likely only exacerbate the supply-and-demand imbalance in our market and put upward pressure on prices," Longer term, Realtors remain optimistic about the coming year and are hopeful that interest rates will remain low to help potential buyers.
Second District-New York
The District's housing markets have strengthened somewhat in early 2015. New York City's residential rental market has firmed slightly: rents in Manhattan and Brooklyn are reported to be up moderately from a year ago, while they have been steady at an elevated levels in Queens. The inventory of available rentals has risen at the high end of the market--especially in Brooklyn--reflecting new development, but remains fairly tight overall. Rents across the rest of the District are up roughly 2 percent over the past year.
New York City's co-op and condo market has been fairly brisk thus far in 2015, despite harsh weather: sales volume was down moderately from the unusually high levels of a year ago, but still high, while selling prices were up moderately and have roughly recovered to pre-recession peak levels. Housing markets across the rest of New York State and New Jersey have mostly been sluggish, in part due to the inclement weather, though Buffalo area Realtors note solid market conditions in January and early February, despite the weather.
Small- to medium-sized banks across the District report increased demand for residential mortgage loans, commercial mortgages, and commercial and industrial loans, but a slight pullback in demand for consumer loans and for refinancing.
Third District financial firms continued to report modest increases in total loan volume since the previous Beige Book. Volumes decreased seasonally for credit card lines as consumers pay down for several weeks following their holiday spending. Strong growth was reported for other consumer credit lines, including auto loans, and for commercial real estate loans. Moderate growth was reported for commercial and industrial lending, while modest growth was reported for home mortgages. Only slight growth was reported for home equity lines of credit. Increasing numbers of contacts expressed concerns that competition has lowered lending standards, undercut margins, and is beginning to lower overall credit quality. Many indicated that they saw no signs of inflationary pressures.
Third District homebuilders provided mixed reports. A New Jersey builder was encouraged by good levels of new contract signings in January and February on the heels of a strong end-of-year close. One central Pennsylvania builder was close to budget in January but reported a slowdown in February. Generally, builders reported that housing starts have slowed with the cold and snow. Also, builders reported that regular price increases of construction materials leaves little room within their own tight margins for addressing wage pressures from their subcontractors. Builders anticipate a better year in 2015. Brokers reported that existing home sales were greater in December and January on a year-over-year basis; sales growth was the greatest in central Pennsylvania, while sales were essentially unchanged along the Jersey shore. Contacts noted that the positive comparisons are made with a 2013 sales season pounded by winter storms. Contacts continued to report slight overall increases in home prices, except in the city of Philadelphia where sales and prices are rising faster. Brokers are generally more optimistic for a return to growth in 2015.
Sales of new and existing single-family homes for all of 2014 were slightly below levels seen in the prior year, while the average sales price was 4 percent higher. Home builders were evenly split in their assessment of market conditions since the start of the year. Softening was attributed to cold weather and a shortage of desirable lots against a backdrop of stringent mortgage standards. New-home contracts were mainly in the move-up price-point categories. The first-time buyer market remains weak. There was a large drop in the number of single-family construction starts since our last report. Nonetheless, as the spring season approaches, homebuilders are fairly optimistic in their outlook. They believe the potential for higher interest rates might serve as an impetus for potential buyers to sign a purchase contract. Most builders have not raised prices since the beginning of the year.
Bankers reported that demand for business credit showed moderate growth during the past six weeks. While demand was described as broad based, it was strongest for commercial real estate, and commercial and industrial loans. Consumer credit demand moved slightly higher, primarily for home equity products.
Loan demand increased slightly since the previous Beige Book. Residential mortgage demand rose in Virginia and West Virginia, especially for refinancing. According to a Virginia banker, consumer lending increased as customers financed home improvement projects, cars, and luxury goods like boats. Commercial and industrial lending increased in Maryland, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. In West Virginia, a banker reported that commercial lending rose in some sectors but was not robust overall.
Residential real estate activity increased moderately in recent weeks. Realtors in Virginia and North Carolina reported increased sales, especially for higher end homes in North Carolina. Buyer traffic picked up in several locations, which a Virginia Realtor attributed to lower interest rates. In contrast, a West Virginia contact said first-time home buyers are hesitant because closing costs and fees have gone up. Average days on the market varied by location and sales prices were generally reported as flat to rising slightly. Inventories decreased in Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. In Northern Virginia, custom home builders were looking for building lots. A North Carolina Realtor said that land availability was an issue.
Since our last Beige Book, activity in commercial real estate markets increased at a modest pace. Realtors in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia reported a moderate increase in retail leasing, especially for smaller spaces and grocery stores. Office space leasing was unchanged according to contacts in North Carolina and Virginia. However office leasing picked up Charleston, West Virginia, and a real estate contact in the Wilmington, North Carolina area said that class A and class B office space was being absorbed at a faster pace. He also said that the market for industrial space had improved. A South Carolina Realtor reported that the office sector slowed slightly in Charleston due to lack of available space and the industrial market is growing even though much of the inventory is functionally obsolete. Office and industrial vacancy rates declined in other areas of South Carolina, but were unchanged elsewhere. Several contacts throughout the District reported new construction projects, especially for supermarkets, groceries and grocery-anchored shopping centers, medical centers, and apartment buildings.
Click below for the sixth through twelfth districts (and more photos!)