Monday, February 8, 2010

Household De-formation

One of the themes we have alluded to repeatedly at Financial Jenga is trends and sustainability. When a trend is not sustainable, reliance upon it can cause massive errors in analysis. The old adage "there's nothing more dangerous than an analyst with a ruler" illustrates the danger of extrapolating such trends. In our very first blog entry we mentioned one unsustainable trend:

We are at the front end of the suffering now. It was easy to see it coming when new houses were adding 2% or more to the existing supply for years and the population was growing at half that rate or less. The Census Bureau confirms that the number of empty houses has never been higher.

The only way that such a wide disparity between housing demand and population could be supported was for the average household size to shrink constantly. This is obviously unsustainable since you eventually reach an average household size below 1.0. Calling that eventuality 'unlikely' is a tremendous understatement. We have contended that consumption has been bloated by credit for years as part of our central UDB (Universal Debt Bubble) thesis. Housing is no exception.

Over-consumption of housing has taken many forms. Square footage per person grew steadily for decades. Increased amenities is another aspect of the same phenomenon. But an absolutely key trend was privacy as a luxury item. For generations, single people have lived with roommates as a means of saving money. The UDB allowed many singles the luxury of privacy by having their own place - whether rented or purchased, thus increasing housing consumption further. In many cases, this could not be justified on a sustainable basis. Credit was the key to the lifestyle of the $40,000 millionaire class.

This has all changed drastically since we started the blog two and a half years ago. Household formation has stalled out and is now considerably LOWER than population growth. Singles are moving back in with family, parents with their adult children or vice versa. Others are going out and getting roommates. And even population growth itself is slowing due to immigration falling. This is even more true if one includes the illegal alien population. All of this is described in analytical piece by consultants IHS - U.S. Household Formation Is Down Sharply. Some particularly salient quotes:
...the number of households increased by 398,000 between March 2008 and March 2009. This was the smallest increase since 1983, and the second-smallest increase in the history of this statistic, which dates back to 1947.

The decline was particularly sharp for those who live alone. The number of women living alone declined by 398,000, while the number of men living alone fell by 112,000.

The recession is behind the slowdown in household formation. Hard times have forced many of those who have lost their jobs, their homes, or both to move in with family or friends. In addition to this, immigration is down. As a result, the number of persons per household, which had been dropping in recent decades, increased in both 2007 and 2008.

The data pretty much speak for themselves. The trend of over-consumption reversing is certainly manifesting itself in housing. These secular trend reversals are occurring in addition to the cyclical factors of inventory and shadow inventory overhangs. The elephant in the room is the future overhang of selling by the Baby Boomers. The big cash-out and trade-down secular trend as the Boomers retire is still mostly ahead of us. That trend ought to be good for retirement homes and other senior communities but will be putting pressure on the housing market at large for at least 15 years and more likely 20 years.

The trend reversal of households consolidating appears to be the new normal. It is simply correcting a period of gross distortion due to the UDB.