Americans are in a buying mood, thanks largely to the housing recovery.
The latest sign emerged Tuesday as the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller home price index posted the biggest gains in seven years. Housing prices rose in every one of the 20 cities tracked, continuing a trend that began three months ago. Similar strength has appeared in new and existing home sales and in building permits, as rising home prices are encouraging construction firms to accelerate building and hiring.
The broad-based housing improvements appear to be buoying consumer confidence and spending, countering fears earlier this year that many consumers would pull back in response to government austerity measures.
In January, the two-year-old payroll tax holiday ended, stripping about $700 from the average household’s annual income, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Federal government spending cuts that started in March are also serving as a drag on economic growth, economists say. And some recent data on other parts of the economy, like manufacturing and exports, have also disappointed.
Yet consumer confidence reached a five-year high in May, according to a Conference Board report also released on Tuesday, with big improvements in Americans’ views about both the current economy and future economic conditions. Consumer spending has also been strikingly resilient so far this year, given the tax hikes.
“Five years after the start of the financial crisis in earnest, and four years and a week’s time from the beginning of the economic recovery, we’re finally starting to get more of a pickup,” said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics. “It’s been a very drawn-out process, but you have to remember what we’ve been digging our way out of.”
The recent decline in gas prices is probably helping, as are increases in the stock market even though only about half of Americans own any equities. Perhaps most important, economists say, the growth in the value of the existing housing stock means that homeowners around the country are finally feeling richer, and that so-called wealth effect is probably making consumers loosen their purse strings a bit.
The positive impact of rising home values and the appreciating stock market is expected to offset at least a third of the fiscal tightening, according to Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors.
The Case-Shiller 20-city composite index rose 10.9 percent over the last year, the biggest increase since April 2006. Several cities — Charlotte, N.C.; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Tampa, Fla. — had their largest month-over-month gains in more than seven years.
Stock markets rose on the news, with the S.& P. 500-stock index up 10.46, or 0.63 percent, at 1,660.06 and the Dow up 106.29, or 0.69 percent, at 15,409.39 at the close on Tuesday. The Nasdaq was up 29.74, or 0.86 percent, at 3,488.89. The 10-year Treasury yield surged to 2.17 percent, its highest level in over a year.
The double-digit housing price increase is being driven by a confluence of factors.
For one, employers have added jobs for 31 straight months, so families are willing to start buying again. At the same time, the inventory of homes available on the market remains unusually low, thanks to little new building in the last few years and the large number of homeowners who are still underwater on their mortgages, making them reluctant to sell at a cash loss.
Now there are signs that higher prices are beginning to encourage some would-be sellers to come off the sidelines and place their homes on the market. That could be healthy for the market, countering concerns that housing might become overvalued again.
“You’ve had this dynamic that has been favorable for price increases now, but it’s also favorable for supply to come back on market, so that will mean some moderation in the pace of price increases,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan Chase, who said that he expected home prices to continue growing but not necessarily at the double-digit rate seen in May.
Construction has been picking up, too, in response to the rise in home prices, but builders cannot bring homes to the market as quickly as buyers want them.