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Are we in a recession? What that could mean for the housing market

Experts say the job market, which is the most important part of the economy, remains strong and reflects an economy that is generally healthy.
Image: Houses in Meridian, Idaho on  June 30, 2022.
One economist estimates that single-family homes are now overvalued by as much as 20%. Jeremy Erickson / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fears that the U.S. economy is heading toward a recession may be realized when the government reports the latest gross domestic product data Thursday.

Yet, some economists say that even if the technical definition of a recession is met — which happens when the economy records two consecutive quarterly declines in GDP — the job market, which is the most important part of the economy and the one that gets hit hard in a recession, remains healthy.

And for homeowners, that means that while the breakneck price appreciation of the past 12 months is likely to slow down significantly, a full-blown correction in home values is unlikely, according to Michael Fratantoni, chief economist and senior vice president of research and industry technology at the Mortgage Bankers Association.

He said that the way GDP is calculated means an increase in imported goods related to easing pandemic-era supply-chain slowdowns could lead to the second consecutive quarter of negative growth for the U.S. economy.

But Fratantoni said he is not yet concerned about the overall health of the U.S. economy right now. He pointed to the ongoing string of monthly job gains, which continue to hold above 300,000 new jobs added; and the unemployment rate, which remains below 4%.

"That's not what a recession looks like" he said.

However, the housing market is already slowing, Fratantoni said. After a number of months that saw home prices appreciate by as much as 20%, the gains are now likely to slow to a crawl, to less than 3%, he said. It's a reflection of home price gains that were outpacing household income gains, something that was ultimately not sustainable, he said.

"What that means on the ground is that for a home seller, they're going to have less negotiating power, and a home buyer will have more," he said. "You're not going to see bidding wars in every instance anymore; you're going to see properties stick on the market for longer."

"But really, we're just returning to a more typical market than an extremely overheated market."

Other economists are more pessimistic about the housing situation. Pantheon Macroeconomics chief economist Ian Shepherdson estimates single-family homes are now overvalued by as much as 20%.

"The market is adjusting to a new reality, with much lower sales volumes and far more inventory," he wrote in a letter to clients Monday. "Prices, therefore, have to adjust to the downside, likely quite substantially."

"The next few months will be very tough," Shepherdson added.

But he also remains optimistic on the overall state of the economy. He notes a new, three-month high in chain-store spending reported by retail group Redbook on Monday.

"Consumers have so much cash, in aggregate, that it’s possible people are just choosing to continue running down their stock of pandemic savings, in order to keep up their discretionary spending," Shepherdson said.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve is expected to announce another increase in its key interest rate as it seeks to fight inflation. Fratantoni said this will cause the economy to slow even further, and likely lead to the unemployment rate moving higher.

But it could take months for the economy to fall into a bona fide correction, something that would truly upend the housing market.

"I don’t want to minimize the risk that we could enter a recession in the first half of next year, and the job market weakening to a much greater extent than forecast," Fratantoni said.

"Having a job is the most important fundamental for a homebuyer, so we would then see demand for homes weaken even further."