Laughing in the aisles? Not hardly

OPTIMISM, ANYONE? The above slide from RISI suggests that there is pent-up housing demand in the market. Forecast in red has been revised downward.

CHANTILLY, VA. —When Ivy Zelman, the polished and bearish housing industry analyst from Zelman & Associates, finished her outlook presentation at the 2008 ProDealer Industry Summit in Chantilly, Va., a question rang out from the back of the packed conference room.

“My daughter turns eight next week,” came the voice. “Do you do birthday parties?”

It was a light-hearted moment to break the tension built up over 45 minutes of charts and graphs generally heading in the wrong directions.

Just outside of Washington, D.C., and against the back drop of financial uncertainty and Congress’ push to rescue the credit markets in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the marquee session of the conference offered sobering analysis of housing trends.

Fortunately, not all the views emanating from the two-part economic outlook session were negative. Economist Paul Jannke, senior vp-wood and timber information for RISI, presented a power point with the relatively uplifting title: “North America Housing Markets: Not All the News is Bad.” His optimistic message included growing afford ability of housing and pent up demand for housing. Still, he cautioned: “It will get worse before it gets better.”

Not all of the educational sessions at the summit focused on the economy. Sam Rashkin described the growth of the Energy Star for Home program. A panel discussion on supply chain improvements shared industry research and details of a partnership between Pro Build Holdings and Beazer Homes. And Huntington, N.Y.-based pro dealer Diana Perenza shared best practices on running a tight credit operation and avoiding losses. She shared the stage with bankruptcy lawyer Annie Catmull.

But it was the economy that was front and center during the summit’s day of educational sessions.

Chief enemy of a housing rebound, according to Zelman’s presentation, is foreclosures. She said there are 800,000 to 1 million foreclosures owned by institutions today. Furthermore, almost 10 million people in America today have zero to negative equity in their homes, she said.

A recent trend affecting the market is cancellations caused by appraisal shock. She said builders are increasingly running up against appraisals that are 5 percent to 10 percent below the contract price, swelling the cancellation rates.

“What we need to do is stop the foreclosures from coming on to the market, depressing prices, reducing appraisals and continuing to burden the market,” she said.

Delegates expecting to hear how the troubled asset relief plan would help matters left disappointed. Zelman indicated Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s plan—all 400 pages of it—may boost confidence, it might help mortgage rates, “but it’s not addressing our problems.”

Jannke agreed, adding: “I’m not sure if the people who got us into this mess are the people who should necessarily be getting us out.”

Also on the economic outlook panel was Joshua Rosenbaum, executive director of building products for UBS Securities. He chimed that “there’s a ton of capital still looking at this sector.”

But he described the shocking events of September, from the bailout of Fannie Mae to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, as unsettling. “It has been unbelievable,” he said. “I think anyone who tells you they’ve seen anything like it, or knows where it’s going is lying to you.”

Positive analysis was in short supply, but it raised its head on several occasions.

Jannke described housing prices as running 17 percent or 18 percent below their peaks—bad news for builders. “But if you’re looking for when this market is going to turn around, that’s good news. In order to reach the end of the beginning, we do have to see home prices come off, and they have come off.”

Jannke’s housing starts forecast calls for a credit-crunch induced drop to the 750,000 to 800,000 seasonally adjusted annual rate, then “snap back” to a 900,000 to million rate and stay there through 2009.

Jannke: “Yes, we are drastically underproducing the housing market right now. We overproduced to the tune of about 1.2 million, so by the end of 2009, with our optimistic forecast we’re still going to have some pent up demand for housing.”

He said to expect a turn around in 2010.

Zelman described the RISI analysis as somewhat bullish.

“How do you fix housing?” she asked. “I really don’t believe there’s a silver bullet. You fix it one consumer and one household at a time. But the more the government steps in, where does it stop?”

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