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Consumer confidence dipped slightly in July, but opportunity for homebuilders

MR-MichiganEnlarge GraphThe Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Confidence Index is a leading indicator for the U.S. economy

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Confidence Index is an important indicator of the consumer’s perception of the U.S. economy. Similar to other consumer confidence measures, it asks consumers about their views on the current economic conditions and their expectations for six months out. It’s one of the oldest consumer surveys, originally started in 1964.

Consumption is the major driver of the U.S. economy and accounts for 70% of GDP. Consumption has been relatively subdued since the recession began, as Americans have boosted their savings rate and spent only on essentials. The real estate bubble drove consumption in the mid ’00s, as people took out cash refinances and spent the extracted home equity. This increased the cost basis for many people’s homes and left them vulnerable when house prices collapsed. As a result, they’ve focused more on paying down debt than on spending.

Highlights from the report

The preliminary estimate for the Consumer Sentiment Index fell to 83.9 in July, down from 84.1 in June. (Consumer confidence in 1964 was 100.) The Bloomberg survey consensus was 84.7, so it was a slight disappointment. The Current Conditions Index rose to 99.7 from 93.8, but the Expectations Index fell to 73.8 from 77.8 last month. Given that an index value of 90 is more or less the average over the past 50 years, consumer confidence is still on the weak side. The index can vary widely: in January of 2000, it was 112, and in November of 2008, it bottomed at 55.3.

One theory that’s been thrown out is that consumers are starting to pick up on the improvement in the real estate market, and that’s driving consumer confidence. As we’ve seen from the real estate indices, unless you live in San Francisco, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or a few other places, you haven’t really been experiencing a major increase in home prices. It may be that the headline numbers are enough to make people feel better even if prices aren’t rising that dramatically where they live.

Implications for homebuilders

KB Home CEO Jeffrey Metzger said on the company’s earnings conference call last week that consumer confidence was more important to its business than the level of interest rates. Buying a new home is such a commitment that buyers require certainty about their job prospects and the economy before they consider such a purchase. KB and Lennar both noted that the first-time homebuyer was returning to the market and that household formation appeared to be increasing again. There’s a lot of pent-up demand from young adults, and once that’s unleashed, it should drive business for homebuilders at lower price points like Lennar (LEN), KB Home (KBH), Ryland (RYL), and Meritage (MTH).