Homebuilders More Optimistic About 55+ Housing; Consumer Debt, Especially Student Loans, Up; Unemployment Claims Edge Down

Builder confidence in the 55+ housing market improved during the fourth quarter of 2012, compared with the same quarter a year earlier. U.S. consumer credit increased at an annualized rate of 6.5 percent during the fourth quarter, and 6.3 percent for December. And for the week ending Feb. 2, initial unemployment claims were 366,000, a decrease of 5,000 from the previous week.

The National Association of Home Builders reported on Thursday that builder confidence in the 55+ housing market improved during the fourth quarter of 2012, compared with the same quarter a year earlier. The index stood at 28 in in the fourth quarter of 2012, compared with 18 a year ago.

As in the overall homebuilder index, 50 is the threshold for optimism/pessimism, so the reading is still relatively low, and in fact has never been over 50, since the organization only started publishing this particular index at the end of 2008. The fourth quarter number also represented a drop from the third quarter, when the index was well above 30. Still, the direction is positive, with all of the index’s components up year-over-year: present sales climbed 10 points to 27, expected sales for the next six months increased 12 points to 38, and traffic of prospective buyers rose nine points to 24.

“Like the overall housing market, the 55+ segment of the market is undergoing a slow but steady recovery,” NAHB chief economist David Crowe said in a statement. “That said, there are serious obstacles to a continued and stronger recovery. While problems with tight credit conditions for buyers and obtaining accurate appraisals are still lingering, new problems like spot shortages and rising costs for labor, materials and lots are beginning to emerge.”

Consumer Debt, Especially Student Loans, Up

The Federal Reserve said on Thursday that U.S. consumer credit increased at an annualized rate of 6.5 percent during the fourth quarter, and 6.3 percent for December. Revolving credit didn’t change much during the quarter — up 0.8 percent — but nonrevolving credit increased at an annualized 9.4 percent, and was up at a rate of 11.4 percent for December.

In fact, revolving down/nonrevolving up is a dynamic that has been going on for some time. In 2008, total outstanding consumer credit was about $2.55 trillion; by the end of 2012, that total was $2.76 trillion. The increase was not because people were racking up more credit-card and other revolving debt, since that kind of debt was a little more than $1 trillion in 2008, but stood at $853.4 billion at the end of 2012. During the recession and its sluggish aftermath, people have been paying down their credit card debt.

The revival of the new car market accounts for some of the increase in nonrevolving debt, but a much larger share is student loans. A separate report by the New York Fed puts the increase in student loans since 2008 at 63 percent, to a total of $956 billion as of the third quarter of 2012. Ominously, the New York Fed also said that serious delinquency rate (more than 90 days past due) on student loans was 11 percent in the third quarter of 2012, higher than for any other kind of debt.

Unemployment Claims Edge Down 

The U.S. Department of Labor reported on Thursday that for the week ending Feb. 2, initial unemployment claims were 366,000, a decrease of 5,000 from the previous week. The less jumpy four-week moving average was 350,500, a decrease of 2,250 from the previous week.

Wall Street declined most of the day on Thursday, but ended down only a little. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 42.47 points, or 0.3 percent, while the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq were off 0.18 percent and 0.11 percent, respectively.

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