|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
The housing industry — which largely carried the American economy through the tribulations of the 2000 stock-market crash, a recession and climbing oil prices — has lost its vigor in recent months and now has begun to bog down the broader economy, which slowed to a modest 2.5 percent growth rate this spring.
That was a sharp comedown from the 5.6 percent growth rate of the first quarter, the Commerce Department reported yesterday, caused in part by the third consecutive quarterly decline in spending on houses and apartment buildings, after several years of rapid growth.
“It hasn’t slowed down a little bit — it has slowed down a lot,” said Doug McCraw, a developer who has scrapped his plans for a 205-unit condominium tower in a neighborhood just north of downtown Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Anybody who did not have a shovel in the dirt has chosen to wait till the market settles.”
The housing slowdown is perhaps the clearest effect of the Federal Reserve’s two-year campaign of raising interest rates in a bid to tap the brakes on the economy and reduce inflation. That campaign has been largely successful, with the decline happening gradually while other parts of the economy, mainly the corporate sector, pick up much of the slack.
“Housing is going from being far and away the most important contributor to growth to being a measurable drag, and it’s happening gracefully so far,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com, a research company. “But there’s now a growing and measurable risk that things don’t go according to plan.”
The biggest risk, economists say, is that the optimism that fed the real-estate boom will reverse dramatically. The number of homes for sale has surged in recent months, particularly in once-hot markets, like the Northeast, Florida, California and parts of the Southwest. As builders delay land acquisition and construction it could reduce employment and spending in the coming months.
More broadly, just as rising housing prices during the boom added to Americans’ sense of wealth and well-being — encouraging them to spend more on a variety of goods and services — the reverse could dampen sentiment and lead consumers to pull back on their purchases.
While the fate of housing prices has received far more attention recently than real estate’s role as an engine of job growth, the sector has also become one of the country’s most important industries. Residential construction and all the activity that swirls around it — mortgage lending, renovations and the like — account for roughly 16 percent of the economy, making it the largest single sector, slightly bigger than health care.