By Michael Theo, WRA President and CEO
With insights from Dave Clark, economist with Marquette University
After a very short two-month recession in March and April of 2020 that mirrored the pandemic-induced economic lockdowns, the U.S. economy bounced back and grew in the second half of the year. Aggressive actions by the Federal Reserve combined with significant stimulus spending approved by Congress led to strong growth in the first half of 2021, with real (inflation adjusted) GDP up by just over 6% for each of the first two quarters of the year. But growth weakened significantly in the 3rd quarter, and real GDP growth came in at just 2%. So why has economic growth slipped? The short answer is that there are significant headwinds on the supply side of the economy that hampered growth including disruptions to supply chains, ongoing labor shortages and rising energy prices. The stimulus spending combined with loose monetary policy has put a lot of money into the economy, but without adequate supply, the economy is growing well below its potential. And for the first time in decades, inflation has become a serious problem. The annual inflation rate was below 2% for the first two months of 2021, but it began to grow in March. Since May it has been at or above 5% and it grew to 6.2% in October, a level not seen since November of 1990. Although the Fed suggested earlier in the year that inflation was likely to be transitory, and price pressures would subside once the supply chain improved, inflation thus far has been a persistent and growing problem. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell indicated in late November that the Fed may need to reconsider its easy money strategy to tamp down inflationary pressures.
The state housing market has seen strong demand for a number of reasons. First, there is significant pent-up demand as Millennials are finally buying homes. Second, the state has seen solid job growth over the previous year and statewide labor market that is now effectively at full employment with the state unemployment rate falling to 3.2% in October. Finally, mortgage rates have remained in the neighborhood of 3% all year, which is very low by historical standards. The problem is that supply has not kept up with demand. A balanced housing market is one that has six months of available supply, and the state has been well below that benchmark for nearly four years. Inventories in 2021 never rose above 3.4 months of supply, which signals a very strong seller’s advantage in the market. Strong demand combined with weak supply is a recipe for stagnate sales growth and sharply increasing home prices, which is exactly what we have seen this year. Through the first 10 months of 2021, median prices rose 9.5% compared to that same period in 2020, but sales are essentially even with last year. It is important to point out that we are keeping pace with the record sales of last year so 2021 will still be a very good year for home sales. But unless inventories improve, sales in 2021 we are unlikely to surpass the record home sales from last year.
Looking ahead to 2022, the Fed needs to tread carefully. Increasing short run interest rates will lower inflationary pressures, but if it is too aggressive, the strategy runs the risk of slowing economic growth. However, inflation lowers consumer purchasing power, and since consumption is approximately two thirds of real GDP, inflation can slow growth in the overall economy. Indeed, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index fell in November due in part to inflationary concerns. We believe the Fed will find the right balance to lower inflationary risks without increasing the risk of recession in 2022.
The state housing market is likely to see another solid year for sales in 2022. Although rising prices have dampened demand slightly, demand conditions are expected to remain favorable with ongoing job growth and continued household formation by Millennials. Mortgage rates will likely increase modestly but they will remain low by historical standards. The state should see some modest improvement in home inventories as Baby Boomers increasingly transition out of owner-occupied housing and new construction continues to increase. However, the housing market will still be a seller’s market in 2022. Finally, home prices pressures have been moderating since late summer, and we expect that moderation to continue. We are unlikely to see double-digit price increases in 2022.
Policymakers at the national level should avoid passing spending bills that overstimulate the economy and increase inflation, and the Biden administration would be well advised to revisit its energy policy to further mitigate inflationary risks. At the state and local level, easing regulatory pressures on new construction can also help to improve the supply of housing in the state and reduce price pressures for buyers.
Founded in 1909, the Wisconsin REALTORS® Association (WRA) is one of the largest trade associations in Wisconsin. It represents and provides services to more than 15,000 members statewide. WRA’s goal is to promote the advancement of real estate in Wisconsin and provide cutting-edge tools to help REALTORS® enjoy a successful career and be competitive in their market.