Why the housing bulls are wrong

November 22, 2010: 1:59 PM ET

Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman is the latest prominent investor to jump on the housing bandwagon. But here are four reasons by housing is still not a good investment.

By Daryl G. Jones, Hedgeye

A number of notable investors presented thoughtful and well-researched ideas at the Value Investing Congress last month. The one idea that we would take the other side of, though, was one from Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Capital, which was unveiled in a presentation titled "How To Make a Fortune": to go long U.S. housing. To state it bluntly, we think Ackman is wrong on housing.

According to several reports, his thesis on U.S. housing focuses on a few key points. First, affordability is at its highest level in decades due to low mortgage rates. Second, household formation will rebound and go back to long-term trends, which suggest growth in demand. Third, supply of housing, which Ackman admits is high, will start to decline since builder production rates are as low as they have ever been. Finally, he believes the downside in housing is limited because at a certain price, institutions could step in and soak up the excess inventory.

To be fair to Ackman this is a secondhand summary of his ideas, but we wanted to address some of these key points and highlight where this thesis falls short.

Affordability

The oft-used point to support a bottom in U.S. home prices is affordability, which is underscored by the fact that mortgage rates are at historical lows. While we can't disagree that financing costs are lower than ever, we do disagree on affordability.

First, credit standards are higher and lenders typically require larger down payments and more upfront points, which increase the "all-in cost" of a house. (If the consumer can get a loan at all.) Second, we believe, based on our supply and demand models, that home prices will fall another 15% to 30%, which implies that the U.S. housing stock is actually overpriced. Finally, and most importantly, our analysis actually shows as houses get "cheaper," or more affordable, demand goes down.

Household formation

As we've highlighted in the chart below, based on our proprietary census work, household formation has turned negative for the first time ever. This is attributed to the fact that individuals are getting married at later and later ages. In fact, we have seen a growth of 1000 basis points in unmarried people aged 25-34 over the last decade. As these people get married less frequently and later, it has a commensurate impact on household formation. In the shorter term, unemployment is also a key negative catalyst for household formation. If the long-term trend in the chart below tells us anything, we shouldn't look at history as a guide for future household formation.

household formation

Housing supply

Despite new homebuilding rates being at all time lows, we have seen no meaningful improvement in the national housing inventory overhang. In the chart directly below, we highlight months of supply of homes on the market. Currently, there are almost 11 months of supply on the market, which is near the highs of 2008. Specifically, there are now more than 4 million housing units on the market, a number that's been accelerating throughout the year.

So, while it would be nice if low new homebuilding rates had an impact on this massive inventory overhang, they do not. The primary reason for this is, of course, that new home sales are a small percentage of the overall housing market. (As an aside, there are also an estimated 6 million houses that are not on the market, but are considered "shadow" inventory.)

housing inventory

Institutional buying of houses

While on a limited basis, small funds have been created to buy housing stock, we have not seen institutions stepping up on a larger scale to buy houses. The primary reason for this is that individual homes don't lend themselves to purchases of scale due to their localized nature. Each and every neighborhood is unique and has its own attributes from which value must be determined and researched.

Also, the management of single family housing as an asset is labor intensive as it relates to managing the rentals of these properties. Further, a wide-scale institutional buyout of housing stock would require banks to suffer massive losses on their loan books – a scenario that they have been avoiding the entire time, as evidenced by the growth in average number of days homeowners spend in foreclosure (which is also impacted by other factors such as moratoriums and litigation).

As the housing river cards continue to show their data, it is becoming increasingly clear that U.S. housing is no bargain.

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Hedgeye

Hedgeye, a real-time investment research firm founded in 2008 by former Carlyle-Blue Wave portfolio manager Keith McCullough, operates as a virtual hedge fund. Staffed by research analysts from across Wall Street, Hedgeye offers fundamental, macro and sector analysis, present picks in a transparent way to its clients. It has built a stable of subscribers, which includes hedge funds and mutual funds, and recently launched a retail investor product.

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