Existing Home Sales Up

Existing home sales rose unexpectedly during January, but foreclosures are down year over year. Banks are back in the black as a whole but still holding on to their money.

Existing home sales rose unexpectedly during January, according to the National Association of Realtors, up 2.7 percent from the previous month. The annualized sales rate was 5.36 million units, which compares to roughly 4.9 million sold in all of 2010 (using NAR figures).

Provided those are accurate numbers. At a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, according to The Wall Street Journal NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said that he didn’t know yet what revision, if any, would be necessary for the organization’s recent sales estimates. “But most indicators imply that NAR data probably has some upward drift,” he said.

The U.S. median sales price for an existing house in January 2011 was also down by 3.7 percent from January 2010, according to NAR. The current median price is $158,800, which is roughly on par with valuations in the spring of 2002.

Percentage of Foreclosure Sales Drops Slightly in 2010

On Wednesday, RealtyTrac said that during all of 2010, almost 26 percent of all residential sales in the United States were properties in foreclosure. That’s bad, but not quite as bad as during 2009, when fully 29 percent of U.S. residential sales involved a foreclosed property. In 2008, the total was 23 percent.

Such properties inevitably sell for less than non-foreclosed properties. An average of 28 percent less in 2010, according to the foreclosure specialist, which was a modest increase from 2009, when the “foreclosure discount” averaged 27 percent, and 2008, when it was 22 percent on average.

About 149,300 foreclosure sales were recorded during the fourth quarter of 2010, down 22 percent from the previous quarter and 45 percent from the fourth quarter of 2009, despite a 21 percent month-over-month uptick in foreclosure sales volume in December. RealtyTrac chalked it up to the fallout from robo-signing and the homebuyer tax credit. But foreclosures will continue: “The Catch-22 for 2011 is  that while accelerating foreclosure sales will help clear the oversupply of distressed properties and return balance to the market in the long run, in the short term a high percentage of foreclosure sales will continue to weigh down home prices,” James Saccacio, RealtyTrac CEO, said in a statement.

Banks Make Money, but Slow to Lend It

Banks are still going under—and about 12 percent are currently at risk of failure—but as a whole the U.S. banking industry is back in the black. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reported on Wednesday that banks realized an aggregate of $21.7 billion in earnings during the last quarter of 2010, the fourth quarter in a row that American banks were profitable—a whole year in the money, in other words.

What are banks doing with their higher earnings? Putting them in a McDuck-like money bin, apparently, according to the FDIC, which also reported that bank lending shrank in the fourth quarter as well. During that time period banks lent $7.38 trillion, a 0.2 percent quarter-over-quarter drop. Lending has been contracting for two and a half years (10 quarters) without a break.

FDIC chairman Sheila Bair wants banks to open up those money bins. “Cleaning up balance sheets is only a first step,” she said in a statement. “Now we are looking to the industry to take the next step and begin to build their loan portfolios. The long-term health of both the industry and our economy will depend on a responsible expansion of bank lending at this pivotal point in the economic recovery.”

Wall Street had the jitters on Wednesday, likely due to the nascent civil war in Libya and the unsettled nature of the world oil market. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 107.01 points, or 0.88 percent, while the S&P 500 gave up 0.61 percent. The Nasdaq lost 1.21 percent.