After Greece gets resolved, we will be ready for a rate hike. There will be dislocations, as there will be hedge fund managers who didn't expect it to occur and there will be emerging countries that will have hot money sucked out of them. We will hear about how the stronger dollar will lay to waste export sales, but if Greece is resolved it is hard to imagine the euro going much lower, and we know the yen seems to have run its downward course.
But what's most encouraged is a return to normalcy in this country. Increasingly, you are hearing that the country's starting to get back to 2007 data, particularly with retail, but more importantly, housing. A lot of that is because employment growth has been so strong.
And a lot of it is because of something that was stressed over and over again on perhaps the most important conference call I heard in the last few weeks, the conference call from KB Home (KBH), the national builder that constructs everything from inexpensive starter homes to incredibly luxurious condos. The $200,000 to $3 million gamut, and the dramatic regional stretching of the KB Home footprint, makes it an ideal barometer for what's happening in the 10% of the U.S. economy that punches well above its weight when it comes to gross domestic product.
To put it simply: business is gangbusters. Not only that, it is sustainably gangbusters because of one aspect that is not going to take us below the 2007 consumer confidence figure that KB Home says it feels we've gotten to: namely, household formation.
Household formation has been the missing ingredient in the recovery the whole time. KB Home management talked about how a lack of confidence in the economy led to a dramatic shrinkage in the population of the first-time homebuyer.
The average rate of household formation, KB Home management say, could run as high as two million, which is well above the 500,000 figure they quoted for the last eight years. Perhaps more important, it is also well above the 1.2 million household formations that had been the average for the last 40 years leading up to the great recession.
It's the "turning point" in the housing recovery, CEO Jeffrey Mezger says, because it has boosted first-time ownership for the company up to 56%. "It's this household formation that is going to help unlock what I call the food chain where, if there is more strength in the first-time buyer demand, people can sell their homes and move to the next house now, which they may not have been able to in the past."
That's been what's lacking. Not a first-time home buyer but a second-time home buyer, who has not been able to sell his house to the typical starter home family.
Why is this so important? Because when you get natural growth you can return to natural interest rates, and we know these rates are not natural.
What I had hoped the Fed would do before it raises rates is take into account how much pent-up demand there might be in the real economy, and take into account international events that might cause our manufacturers to act at a disadvantage. I also feared that it would raise rates right when the negative effect of Obamacare might kick in to frustrate job growth.
To believe KB Homes -- and there is no reason not to, because they bemoaned this issue for ages -- is to believe that we are at last at the point where a rate hike won't frustrate sales. In other words, housing can handle it.
If housing can handle it, then almost any industry can handle it.
So, if Greece gets resolved, look for the Fed to signal that September will be when the Fed starts the gradual hiking of rates that will NOT deck the economy, while it will cause a momentary setback to the stock market.
All in all, the Fed will have played this scenario perfectly from the depths of the recession until now. They waited; scared behavior now seems waning, and we can get back to business without rates staying at zero to help do so.