The real estate market is about to either take off or collapse

The real estate market is one of the most important parts of the American economy.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of disagreement about where it’s going next.

Housing is one of the largest sources of wealth for Americans, it drives other parts of the economy such as consumer spending, and the credit given out for mortgages keeps many financial institutions profitable.

Given the housing market’s importance, economists and analysts spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out where the market is and what will happen next. As it stands now, however, there appears to be no consensus on the matter.

On the one hand, some economists believe that the market is only just now entering it’s full-throated recovery from the housing crisis. In their latest “Macro Insights,” the Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM) team said that the housing market is still early in its cycle.

“We think the US real estate market remains firmly in the expansionary phase of the cycle, with the commercial property market running somewhat ahead of the residential market,” said the note from GSAM.

The GSAM note points to the low vacancy rate in commercial real estate, the early-in-the-cycle-looking number of single family housing starts, and the still relatively loose lending standards for banks as indicators that real estate still has room to run.

Others, however, are not as encouraged.

For instance, in their second quarter earnings, PulteGroup, one of the largest homebuilders in the US, said that they were planning for a slowdown in the future because “homebuilding is a cyclical business.”

“After four years during which our investment in new land grew significantly, we plan to slow the rate of growth in our new investment in 2017 and beyond,” said CEO Richard Dugas during the company’s second quarter earnings conference call.

Scaling back investment in new property, which in turn takes a few years to develop, would indicate that the company believes that the housing cycle is headed towards completion rather than just beginning.

On the commercial real estate (CRE) side, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) released a report that seemed to indicate that the sector was looking bubbly, which usually ends with a pop.

“While leveraged lending and auto lending remain concerns, CRE lending and concentration risk management has become an area of emphasis for regulators,” said Thomas Curry, the head of the OCC, in remarks accompanying the report.

Both of these are statements suggesting a mid-to-late part of the housing cycle and certainly would indicate a shorter timeframe for the housing recovery’s end.

So who’s right?

Well, the problem is there are arguments to be made on both sides. You could be a believer in the housing market: Intention to buy a home is at record highs, wages are increasing and the labour market is strong, allowing people to afford homes.

Or you could take the other side and say that under-supply has already pushed prices so high that young people trying to buy their first homes won’t be able to. Recent reports on the ease of credit show that lenders at least intend to tighten their standards. Further, the Federal Reserve is (slowly) embarking on raising rates, which will make it harder to borrow for a house.

And while saying both sides have a point may not be the most satisfying way to resolve the question, there simply isn’t a definitive answer. It all depends on the way you weight the various economic factors.

And for now we all have to watch the frequent housing data — permits, starts, the home price index, and the like — and see what they tell us about the real estate market.

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