ADA, OKLAHOMA (May 8, 2018) Released today, the LegalShield Housing Activity Index, a leading indicator of housing starts and a component of the broader LegalShield Law Index, suggests there is reason for optimism about increasing housing construction momentum this year. The Housing Activity Index rose (improved) 3.5 points to 115.2 in April, due to an improvement in its component related to foreclosures, which remain at historic lows. Housing starts also increased in March, rising 1.9 percent to a 1.32 million annual rate, near a post-recession high. Even so, worsening trade relations are driving up materials costs and threaten to suppress building activity.
“Although LegalShield data suggest housing starts should continue to improve in the coming months, several headwinds facing construction activity have worsened in recent weeks,” explained James Rosseau, LegalShield’s chief commercial officer. “The price of framing lumber has risen over 40 percent from a year ago due to import tariffs, while confrontations with key U.S. trading partners, particularly China, have also led to increased costs for steel and aluminum.”
Rosseau continued, “rising interest rates are another potential reason for concern, as the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage climbed above 4.5 percent for the first time since 2013. For the time being, however, we are cautiously optimistic about new housing construction in 2018.”
The LegalShield Law Index reflects the demand for legal services among the company’s provider law firms in all 50 states. The Law Index is a suite of leading indicators of the economic and financial status of U.S. households and small businesses, and it also includes the Consumer Financial Stress Index, Real Estate Index, Bankruptcy Index, and the Foreclosure Index.
The LegalShield Consumer Financial Stress Index edged down (improved) 1.0 point in April to 71.3, reaching a new record low for the second straight month. This indicates that consumer financial health is strong and likely to remain so throughout the first half of 2018. Meanwhile, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index also improved, rising 1.7 points in April to 128.7. Other measures of consumer sentiment, including the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index, are also at or near multi-year highs, as one might expect in light multi-decade low unemployment levels.
“Financial stress is likely to remain subdued while consumer confidence should remain elevated over the next one to three months due to the combination of low unemployment, reduced tax burden, and slowly rising wages,” added Rosseau. “Although interest rates could become more concerning for subprime borrowers over the next 12 to 18 months if they continue to rise as expected, consumers’ finances are generally healthy and show little sign of worsening in the short term.”
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The LegalShield Foreclosure Index, a leading indicator of foreclosure activity, also reached an all-time low last month, falling 9.1 points to 54.3 in April. The index continues to closely track foreclosure starts, which are still at a 30-year low, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Although the housing market continues to experience significant demand and affordability imbalances, foreclosures have steadily decreased since 2010. The LegalShield Foreclosure Index — which is calibrated to provide an early warning signal to the market of an impending rise in foreclosure activity — points to muted foreclosure activity over the coming months.
Additional predictive takeaways based on the data through April:
The LegalShield Real Estate Index, a leading indicator of existing home sales, suggests that home sales will likely remain muted in the short term.
The LegalShield Bankruptcy Index, a leading indicator of monthly bankruptcy filings, continues to suggest that bankruptcies will remain subdued in the near term.
The five LegalShield indices closely track a handful of key economic indicators, such as the Consumer Confidence Index (developed by the Conference Board), Housing Starts (reported by the U.S. Census Bureau), and Foreclosure Starts (reported by the Mortgage Bankers Association). Each LegalShield index has undergone a battery of statistical tests to validate its relationship to an existing economic indicator that sheds light on the health and direction of the U.S. economy. LegalShield publishes the Law Index monthly, on the sixth business day of each month. Please contact Jacob Freedman at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of the economic assessment.
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