New Home Sales Spike in January; Bank Health Improves in 4Q

New home sales increased by 9.6 percent in January, compared to December. And U.S. commercial banks and savings institutions reported aggregate net income of $40.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013, up 16.9 percent compared with the same period a year ago.

New home sales came in at an annualized rate of 468,000 units in January, according to the Census Bureau on Wednesday, an unexpectedly large increase. That’s 9.6 percent more than during December, 2.2 percent higher than during January 2013, and in fact the highest sales rate since 2008.

Even so, the January 2014 rate still compares poorly to historic rates. During  the economic  trough of 2010 and ’11, new homes sales were at 50-year lows. The January rate, while better than that, still compares to the worst sales rates of previous recessions, namely the slumps of the 1970s and early ’80s. A more “normal” rate would be between 600,000 and 800,000 new units sold in a year.

The bureau also estimated that the median sales price for new houses in January was $260,100, while the average came in at $322,800. The number of new houses for sale at the end of January was 184,000 units, which represents a 4.7-month supply at the current rate of sales. A “normal,” or pre-recession range, is about six months’ supply.

Bank Health Improves in 4Q 

The FDIC said on Wednesday that U.S. commercial banks and savings institutions that the agency insures reported aggregate net income of $40.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2013, up 16.9 percent compared with the same period a year ago. That’s the 17th time in the last 18 quarters — since the third quarter of 2009 — that bank earnings have enjoyed a year-over-year increase.

More than half of the banks reporting (53 percent) had year-over-year growth in quarterly earnings. The proportion of unprofitable banks fell to 12.2 percent in the fourth quarter, down from 15 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012. The FDIC also reported that the number of problem banks declined from 515 to 467 during the quarter, almost half of the high of 888 at the end of the first quarter of 2011. Two FDIC-insured institutions failed in the fourth quarter of 2013, down from eight in the fourth quarter of 2012. For all of 2013, there were 24 bank failures, compared to 51 in 2012.

The dollar value of one- to four-unit residential REOs held by banks declined from $6.79 billion in the third quarter of 2013 to $6.64 billion in the fourth quarter. That’s the lowest level of REOs since the third quarter of 2007. Even in good times, the FDIC insured institutions have about $2.5 billion in residential REO on their books.

Wall Street experienced a lackluster trading session on Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average eking out a gain of 18.75 points, or 0.12 percent, and the Nasdaq rose 0.1 percent. The S&P 500 essentially broke even.