Consumer comfort slips again, negative for builders like Lennar

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index is a weekly sentiment index that covers three critical variables: respondents’ perception of the state of the economy, their evaluation of their personal finances, and whether it’s a good time to purchase goods and services. The index is a random sample of data from 1,000 people collected through telephone interviews using relatively straightforward questions. Are the state of the economy, personal finances, and time to buy goods and services excellent, good, not so good, or poor? Since the index started in 1985, it has averaged 42, so “neutrality” isn’t necessarily 50. The highest reading the index ever recorded was +66.3 in early 2000. The index bottomed at 23 in 2009.

Bloomberg Consumer ComfortEnlarge Graph

Note that the index was recently rescaled from a scale of -50 to 50 to a scale of 0 to 100.

Views of the economy are still highly negative

While the report is on balance negative (not surprising, given that the index itself is below 50), perceptions of the economy are highly negative (21% positive versus 79% negative), as well as the perception of whether it’s a good time to buy (31% positive versus 69% negative). As to personal finances, the index ticked down: 51% positive versus 49% negative. So when you ask consumers about the world around them, they tend to be more negative, whereas when you ask about their own personal situation, they’re more neutral.

Implications for homebuilders

Consumer sentiment is a critical factor in risk-taking. In fact, KB Home (KBH) in a recent earnings conference call cited consumer confidence as a more important variable than interest rates. Rising real estate prices had been driving increases in orders. However, order growth has been slipping for builders. Student loan debt remains a problem for the first-time homebuyer, but even the first-time homebuyer seems to be reappearing. Given that the cost of renting is way higher than the cost of owning, a change in sentiment should cause a big spike in new orders. Housing starts have been highly depressed since the real estate collapse. Even a marginal increase in demand should drive homebuilders forward. Specific homebuilder stocks that will be positively affected by changes in consumer sentiment include Lennar (LEN), PulteGroup (PHM), D.R. Horton (DHI), and Toll Brothers (TOL). Investors can also invest in the sector via an ETF like the SPDR S&P Homebuilders EFT (XHB).

To learn more about how homebuilder stocks and ETFs are faring, see the Market Realist series Black Knight Financial Services’ March 2014 Mortgage Monitor.