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Housing Market Recap (excerpted from Gate House’s weekly note to clients) April 10, 2023

Monday, April 10, 2023

There continues to be a conundrum in US markets: Q1 was very strong for consumer spending, above pre-pandemic levels, substantially. There has been decent, though slowing, payroll data — the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that total non-farm payroll employment rose by 236,000 in March. It was the smallest increase in more than two years, but it was enough to push the unemployment rate down to 3.5 percent.

Still, there are real signs of wear and tear on the economy. A Black Knight analysis found more than 11% of borrowers who took out loans to buy houses last year had properties worth less than the debt on them in February.  According to Inside Mortgage Finance, production of agency mortgage-backed securities fell to its lowest level in nine years in the first quarter of 2023.

We’ve discussed here the vulnerabilities of regional banks given exposure to the commercial sector, with retail hurting and office space values falling amidst higher rates and post-covid shifts in remote work. Regional banks with the weakest balance sheets and heretofore unrealized losses, even with the Fed facility lending at par, continue to give investors concern. Whether that is powerful enough to cause contagion is difficult to determine, but recent history makes it easy to see how another bank failure could re-ignite flows out of regionals with high levels of underwater loans and assets that have been propped up by lower rates (soon needing to be refinanced in a higher rate environment).

Corporate balance sheets are in better shape than they were prior to the global financial crisis which will help them weather earnings declines from underutilized office space, to a point, but we can expect defaults to rise and banks to continue to feel the pinch of lower interest margins and reduced income from lower loan volumes.