With the luxury of hindsight it’s pretty clear that UK housebuilders were heading for a perfect storm in the run up to the 2007/08 stock market crash. Not only were they to find themselves at the wrong end of a bank-led recession, but as the market peaked many were overbought, over indebted and over optimistic that the good times would carry on. In the year-long value tailspin that followed, housebuilders and their investors got savaged.
In the aftermath, at least as far as share prices go, the housebuilding and construction sector entered a period of post-traumatic inertia. As it stands, opinions are sharply divided on whether the sector is on the road to recovery or whether the threat of falling house prices means it’s a risk too far for many investors.
On one hand, mortgage lending rates – which are widely blamed for depressed sales of new homes – remain low. Likewise, government efforts to grease the lending wheels and chivvy buyers with initiatives such as NewBuy and the Funding for Lending scheme are too embryonic for their impact to yet be fully known. Meanwhile, critics have pointed to the proliferation in recent years of so-called shared equity schemes as a cause for concern. These deals involve housebuilders ‘lending’ buyers something like 25% of the cost of a new home in order to smooth mortgage application process. As a consequence, housebuilders have increased their exposure to the risk of falling house prices.
The counter argument from industry watchers, indeed the housebuilders themselves, is that a ‘stable’ housing market is all they need. As long as house prices and mortgage lending don’t fall, then housebuilders can still turn a profit – indeed, that’s just what they are doing. On this point, there are factors in their favour, not least the perennial problem of an undersupply of new housing in the UK. During the downturn the emphasis changed to building higher margin family homes (rather than apartments), particularly around London and the South East where demand is higher. In addition, the downturn presented an ideal opportunity for housebuilders to buy up land (often at distressed prices), which analysts suggest is now feeding into the latest financials.
While general sector sentiment is uncertain, one of the patterns emerging is that construction companies are showing increasing signs of fundamental and technical strength. A year ago, a group of construction companies…