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Residential construction still in a bottoming formation

August housing starts came in a bit higher than expected, and remain consistent with a view that residential construction bottomed in the second quarter of last year, but has since made little progress. (Housing starts are the green line in the above chart.) Always on the lookout for market-based indicators that may lead the numbers put out by government agencies, I note that the Bloomberg index of 17 major homebuilder stocks (red line in the above chart) may fit the bill. It bottomed in the first quarter of last year and has spent about 18 months consolidating. It also predicted the modest slump in housing starts in May-July, and the modest upturn in August. Millions of investors on the ground and crunching numbers may prove better at divining the course of the housing industry than the folks at the U.S. Census Bureau who put out the housing starts number each month.

At the very least, I would venture to say that with housing starts and homebuilders' stocks failing to reach new lows after hitting bottom well over a year ago, one can say with some degree of confidence that we have seen the worst of the housing recession. More and more the issue becomes the timing and the strength of the recovery.

UPDATE: Here is a long-term chart of housing starts. Note how the past two years have seen the most severe drop in residential construction in recorded history, and the weakness has persisted far longer than in any prior recession. The good news is that once the excess inventory of homes is depleted, the rebound in construction—which does not appear imminent, but should be starting within the next 6-9 months—should be fairly dramatic.

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