The country isn’t officially in a recession yet, despite two consecutive quarters of national contraction of the gross domestic product, a commonly cited indicator of an economic downturn, says Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of REALTORS®. And several healthy economic trends, including a robust job market, coupled with new efforts to boost affordable housing could stave off a more serious slump, Yun adds.
New guidance from the Treasury enabling state and local governments to use leftover emergency COVID-19 funding from the American Rescue Plan to create affordable housing should help ease the inventory crisis and counteract the effects of a tightening economy. Still, there are questions about whether the U.S. has entered “stagflation,” a period of high inflation combined with an economic slowdown, as many Americans feel the frustrating effects of a slower economy and higher consumer prices. But the National Bureau of Economic Research, the council that watches over U.S. business cycles, has yet to declare a recession, Yun notes.
There are two major factors at work counteracting current economic conditions:
- Job creation is robust. Total payroll jobs were over 150 million in early 2020 before the onset of the pandemic, Yun said at NAR’s Real Estate Forecast Summit last week. While COVID-19 shutdowns precipitated a steep decline in jobs, each month showed strong job creation after the restrictions were lifted. Though there is variation across the country, Yun says, the job market has largely recovered. “We are essentially at the same level of jobs and W-2 employment now compared to pre-COVID days,” he said. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that right now, there are more job openings than unemployed people. As of June, there were 5.9 million workers searching for jobs and over 10 million job openings. So, while high unemployment typically characterizes a recession, “the ratio [today] is almost two to one,” Yun said. “It’s a very unusual recession—if we are in one.”
- Commercial real estate is growing. Though a recession typically means bad news for commercial properties, the commercial market as a whole is flourishing despite a stagnant office sector, Yun writes in a recent REALTOR® Magazine column. Rental demand is booming, and rents are up significantly. Demand for warehouse space has surged as retailers stock up to avoid supply chain disruptions. Hotel bookings, air travel and park attendance are now above pre-pandemic levels. All of this increased activity has led to high demand for new commercial construction. “The improving construction sector means that any recession will be mild,” Yun said.
Despite the positive economic signs, falling homes sales remain a concern. “Home sales are down largely because mortgage rates have risen sharply,” Yun said at last week’s event. “If interest rates rise further, then home sales will decline even more—even if there is no recession.” One long-term solution is to increase housing supply, which is why the Treasury’s announcement is meaningful. The change in ARP guidance could mean significantly more funds going to housing supply and a reduction in costs for buyers over time. Another factor that will help in the short term is employers finding a way to match workers to openings and fill jobs, Yun said. “We still need workers. In an environment with rising mortgage rates, what will drive homes sales is jobs.”