The only thing uglier than the dreary weather today in Washington, D.C., was the near-term housing forecast at the headquarters of the National Association of Homebuilders' 2007 Fall Construction Forecast.
A group of dueling economists didn't agree on much. But they all think the housing industry is in for more pain. "We're almost certainly looking at 2008 as another down year," said David Seiders, chief economist and senior staff economist for the NAHB.
Seiders sees the bottom of the market hitting by the end of 2008's first quarter and starts moving up in the third quarter of 2008. Maury Harris, managing director and chief economist for UBS, sees the market falling to its trough in the first half of 2008, while Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Economy.com, sees the bottom coming even sooner.
"The 2007 fourth quarter will be so bad, it will be hard to be worse in the first quarter of 2008," Zandi said.
Zandi specifically points to the credit crunch as the culprit. "This is the teeth of the credit crunch," he said. "I'm assuming that abates by next spring."
Unless fears of inflation derail things, all of the economists thought the Fed would ease rates at least once in the near future. But people expecting the Fed to move rates just to throw a life raft to the housing sector may need to keep waiting, according to Michael Moran, chief economist for Daiwa Securities. "The Fed will not adjust monetary policy to rescue the housing sector," he said.
If the economy gets worse and people lose jobs, home sales will slow up even further. Seiders put the chance of the economy falling into recession at about 40%. Harris said the chances of recession were around 40%, while Moran, possibly the most optimistic economist, tabbed the chances of recession at about 30%.
With the exception of Moran, most of the economists agreed that the job market is weakening, spurred by the housing decline. "We've been a major drag on the economy since the early part of 2006," Seiders said.
Eventually, that could lead to layoffs outside the housing sector, which has remained relatively unscathed so far. In 2005, the market was generating 200,000 jobs a month. Now, it has fallen to about 75,000, according to Zandi.
Job uncertainty and shrinking home equity could collide to keep pocketbooks closed. "Spending doesn't have to fall, but it will certainly be under a lot of pressure," Zandi said.
But if the market continues to weather the housing troubles, things will eventually get better. "As long as you see job and population growth, you will see people buy houses," said Bernard Markstein, staff vice president for the NAHB.