In Tuesday’s report, the 5-unit housing permits data hit the same levels we saw in the COVID-19 recession. Once the backlog of apartments is finished, those jobs will be at risk, which traditionally means mortgage rates would fall soon after, as they have in previous economic cycles.

However, this is happening while single-family permits are still rising as the rate of builder buy-downs and the backlog of single-family homes push single-family permits and starts higher. It is a tale of two markets — something I brought up on CNBC earlier this year to explain why this trend matters with housing starts data because the two marketplaces are heading in opposite directions.

The question is: Will the uptick in single-family permits keep mortgage rates higher than usual? As long as jobless claims stay low, the falling 5-unit apartment permit data might not lead to lower mortgage rates as it has in previous cycles.

From Census: Building Permits: Privately‐owned housing units authorized by building permits in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,518,000. This is 1.9 percent above the revised January rate of 1,489,000 and 2.4 percent above the February 2023 rate of 1,482,000.

When people say housing leads us in and out of a recession, it is a valid premise and that is why people carefully track housing permits. However, this housing cycle has been unique. Unfortunately, many people who have tracked this housing cycle are still stuck on 2008, believing that what happened during COVID-19 was rampant demand speculation that would lead to a massive supply of homes once home sales crashed. This would mean the builders couldn’t sell more new homes or have housing permits rise.

Housing permits, starts and new home sales were falling for a while, and in 2022, the data looked recessionary. However, new home sales were never near the 2005 peak, and the builders found a workable bottom in sales by paying down mortgage rates to boost demand. The first level of job loss recessionary data has been averted for now. Below is the chart of the building permits.

On the other hand, the apartment boom and bust has already happened. Permits are already back to the levels of the COVID-19 recession and have legs to move lower. Traditionally, when this data line gets this negative, a recession isn’t far off. But, as you can see in the chart below, there’s a big gap between the housing permit data for single-family and five units. Looking at this chart, the recession would only happen after single-family and 5-unit permits fall together, not when we have a gap like we see today.

From Census: Housing completions: Privately‐owned housing completions in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,729,000.

As we can see in the chart below, we had a solid month of housing completions. This was driven by 5-unit completions, which have been in the works for a while now. Also, this month’s report show a weather impact as progress in building was held up due to bad weather. However, the good news is that more supply of rental units will mean the fight against rent inflation will be positive as more supply is the best way to deal with inflation. In time, that is also good news for mortgage rates.

Housing Starts: Privately‐owned housing starts in February were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,521,000. This is 10.7 percent (±14.2 percent)* above the revised January estimate of 1,374,000 and is 5.9 percent (±10.0 percent)* above the February 2023 rate of 1,436,000.

Housing starts data beat to the upside, but the real story is that the marketplace has diverged into two different directions. The apartment boom is over and permits are heading below the COVID-19 recession, but as long as the builders can keep rates low enough to sell more new homes, single-family permits and starts can slowly move forward.

If we lose the single-family marketplace, expect the chart below to look like it always does before a recession — meaning residential construction workers lose their jobs. For now, the apartment construction workers are at the most risk once they finish the backlog of apartments under construction.

Overall, the housing starts beat to the upside. Still, the report’s internals show a marketplace with early recessionary data lines, which traditionally mean mortgage rates should go lower soon. If housing leads us into a recession in the near future, that means mortgage rates have stayed too high for too long and restrictive policy by the Fed created a recession as we have seen in previous economic cycles.

The builders have been paying down rates to keep construction workers employed, but if rates go higher, it will get more and more challenging to do this because not all builders have the capacity to buy down rates. Last year, we saw what 8% mortgage rates did to new home sales; they dropped before rates fell. So, this is something to keep track of, especially with a critical Federal Reserve meeting this week.

Read More