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Why last week’s economic releases were stronger than expected

Brent Nyitray, CFA, MBA - Author

Mar. 12 2014, Published 5:00 p.m. ET

The ten-year bond is the basic driver of REITs and homebuilders

Long-term interest rates are priced off the benchmark long-term bond, which is the ten-year Treasury. These days, the ten-year bond reacts to economic data through the Federal Reserve’s asset purchase program, also known as “quantitative easing” (or QE). As a general rule, economic data that shows weakness is bond bullish (positive). However, data that shows strength isn’t necessarily bond bearish (negative).

Some stronger-than-expected economic data

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We had some important economic reports last week, with personal income (which was better than expected, although there should be an asterisk next to that report), the ISM reports (which were mixed, as manufacturing performed better than services), and finally the jobs report (which came in better than expected although the unemployment rate ticked up).

Homebuilder earnings and M&A

Toll Brothers (TOL) reported good numbers recently. The homebuilding segment has definitely been a case of two sectors—the luxury sector, which is doing extremely well, and the first-time homebuyer sector, which is getting bombarded by increasing real estate prices, increasing interest rates, and a lousy job market.

We’re starting to see mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity in the homebuilding space, with two deals. First, Tri Pointe Homes (TPH) is buying Weyerhaeuser’s homebuilding unit, and second, Toll Brothers is buying Shapell. We can attribute much of this to the two-tiered financing market in general. Large companies like those in the homebuilder ETF (XHB) are able to borrow at exceptionally low interest rates and almost have money thrown at them by the Street. Smaller builders, however, are stuck dealing with the banks, and credit is much tighter for them.

Commercial REIT earnings

Recently, we heard from mall REIT heavyweights Simon Property Group (SPG) and General Growth Properties (GGP). Overall, retail sales may have been slightly disappointing, but these mall REITs are reporting strong numbers.

Implications for mortgage REITs

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Mortgage REITs, like Annaly (NLY) and American Capital (AGNC), are driven by interest rates. NLY reported earnings and said that it was planning to increase its bet in mortgage-backed securities and increase its leverage. The mortgage REITs have been crushed as the ten-year bond has sold off, but they’ve been trying to form a bottom here. For REITs, it’s all about the Fed’s exit of QE (quantitative easing).

Implications for homebuilders

Recently, we heard from Toll Brothers. It has been able to raise prices, although buyers seem to be hitting their breaking point with price hikes. This probably means the days of increasing gross margins are behind them. While the first-time homebuyer remains on the sidelines, the move-up buyer has been active and has been driving price increases. We’re entering the all-important spring selling season, which is make-or-break time for homebuilders.


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