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Mixed messages in home metrics

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While housing starts and building permits continue to trend higher, builder confidence, which often dovetails nicely with housing construction figures, has dipped over the last few months.

So what gives?

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which, in conjunction with Wells Fargo, publishes the builder confidence index, waning confidence is not necessarily due to diminishing demand for new homes.

NAHB economist David Crowe said: "In addition to tight credit and below-price appraisals, home building is beginning to suffer growth pains as the infrastructure that supports it tries to re-establish itself." In other words, the downsizing that took place during the recession and the economic flat line that followed dramatically diminished those industries that builders rely on to support them.

One of those industries suffering "growth pains" is the wood products industry. As a result, there are certain instances where builders are not receiving their deliveries on time. However, rising demand and a cautious reaction on the part of producers to increase production creates the scenario builders and their representatives dislike even more than tardy shipments — high lumber and panel prices.

Another issue apparently lowering builders' confidence is the draining of the skilled labor pool. The housing downturn sent framers, roofers and sheetrockers looking for other forms of work. In order to coax them back, builders sometimes now must pay higher wages, adding to their costs.

Other concerns among builders include a lack of developed lots to build upon and credit availability.

All these difficulties and roadblocks apparently slowing home production would lead one to conclude that demand for new homes is likely outpacing the number of new homes under construction. One thing learned when the housing bubble burst is that builders have a propensity to overbuild. Perhaps a slow, steady period of recuperation is best for the economy, one that keeps home building in check and lets homeowners continue to recoup some equity.

This article was provided by Crow's Market and Price Service/RISI. For a free trial of this service, visit RISI.com/crowsfree.

Crow's Market RecapA condensed recap of the market conditions for the major North American softwood lumber and panel products as reported in Crow's Weekly Market Report.

Lumber: Trading in the SPF market slowed, but prices remained strong, even rising a few dollars in some instances. Weather again hampered sales. A sharp decline in futures early also took steam out of the market.

Buyers continued to order Southern Pine lumber volumes at a decent rate, but not as eagerly as the week prior. Mill order files and moderate demand kept upward pressure on most #2 dimension prices. Increases of $5 to $10 were typical. Coastal species lumber trading was strong and steady.

Good consumption rates brought buyers back into the market to replenish. Traders often noted the significant amount of jobs taking delivery, waiting on shipments or quoted. The market for Inland species lumber started on a quieter note than in previous weeks. Extended mill order files and limited mill offerings kept buyers on the sidelines.

Wholesalers reported steady sales of both truckload and LTL volumes out of reloads. Radiata Pine remained in short supply for Mldg&Btr, and Shop was unavailable. Limited offerings of Mldg&Btr were quickly snapped up, often at a premium.

The markets for Moulding and Shop remained a struggle for Ponderosa Pine producers. Control of the Ponderosa Pine board market remained in the hands of producers, although sales levels quieted. The slower pace was attributed to lengthy order files, as well as strong pricing.

Panels: OSB producers remained on the sidelines, relying on their order files to help them get through the slow period that has persisted. Most mill offerings were light in volume and firm or higher priced.

Southern Pine plywood mills reported a quieter tone to the market but still kept lead times of two to three weeks. Prices for thick-rated sheathing items were the most likely to rise across all three zones. While other markets enjoyed steady demand, Western Fir plywood sales remained skimpy in comparison.

Producers bemoaned the wintry weather in the northern reaches of the United States. Canadian plywood continued to struggle a bit. Producers, anticipating better demand to come in the near future, tried to hold prices, even though many of them had light order files. Both western producers and buyers of particleboard noted modest but noteworthy improvements in that market. The market for MDF remained strong. The frenzy earlier this year among buyers to secure supplies has subsided, and the market appears more orderly.


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