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Consumer sentiment rebounds in December, good for the builders

Brent Nyitray, CFA, MBA

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Confidence Index is a leading indicator for the U.S. economy

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Confidence Index is an important indicator of the consumer’s perception of the U.S. economy. Similar to other consumer confidence measures, it asks consumers about their views on current economic conditions and their expectations for six months out. It’s one of the oldest consumer surveys, originally started in 1964.

Consumption is the major driver of the U.S. economy, and it accounts for 70% of GDP. Consumption has been relatively subdued since the recession began, as Americans have boosted their savings rate and spent only on essentials. The real estate bubble drove consumption in the mid-’00s as people took out cash refinances and spent the extracted home equity. This increased the cost basis for many people’s homes and left them vulnerable when house prices collapsed. As a result, they’ve focused more on paying down debt than on spending.

Highlights from the report

The Consumer Sentiment Index rose to 82.5 in December, up from 75.1 in November. (Consumer confidence in 1964 was 100.) The Bloomberg survey consensus was 83. The Current Conditions Index rose from 97.9 to 88, and the Expectations Index jumped to 72.1 from 66.8 last month. Given that an index value of 90 is more or less the average over the past 50 years, consumer confidence is still on the weak side. But the index can vary widely. In January of 2000, it was 112, and in November of 2008, it bottomed at 55.3. To put the drop in perspective, last month’s number was a six-year high, so things are still pretty positive.

Consumers may be feeling the effects of increasing interest rates. However, asset prices continue to rise. We’re near highs in the stock market, and real estate prices are going up as well. It looks like the dysfunction in Washington DC had no real effect on confidence.

Implications for homebuilders

KB Home CEO Jeffrey Mezger said on the company’s earnings conference call that consumer confidence was more important to its business than the level of interest rates. Buying a new home is such a commitment that buyers require certainty about their job prospects and the economy before they entertain this purchase.

KB and Lennar both noted that the first-time homebuyer was returning to the market and that household formation appeared to be increasing again. There’s a lot of pent-up demand from young adults, and once that unleashes, it should drive business for homebuilders at lower price points like PulteGroup (PHM), Lennar (LEN), KB Home (KBH), Ryland (RYL), and Meritage (MTH).

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