At the 2012 International Builders' Show, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke emphasized something that should come as no surprise to most people who pay attention to the economy: "The state of the housing sector has been a key impediment to a faster recovery."
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The precipitous declines we've seen in recent years appear to be behind us, but the U.S. has yet to see the "resurgence in the housing market" that has helped it recover from other recessions.
Several factors contribute to the slow recovery, Bernanke says, including a reduction in household creation in the U.S., the perception that houses are no longer as secure an investment as they once were and the persistently high unemployment rate.
But, one of the biggest factors may be the unwillingness of financial institutions to provide credit for home purchases.
Since its peak in 2007, U.S. home mortgage credit outstanding has contracted 13 percent in real terms. "In prior recoveries, mortgage credit had begun to grow four years after the peak," Bernanke said. "But not this time around."
Many financial institutions have tightened their underwriting standards to the point where potential homebuyers who are generally considered "creditworthy" – for example, they have FICO scores of 620 and a down payment of 10 percent – can't obtain financing.
"Some tightening was no doubt appropriate," Bernanke said. But in many cases, the new standards make it nearly impossible to receive financing if the application is anything less than perfect.
Without an improvement in willingness to lend, the housing market isn't likely to improve much, Bernanke said. As a result, recovery will continue to be a slow and arduous process.
Watch Bernanke's presentation on the National Association of Home Builders website.