Deconstructing Homebuilders

NEW YORK ( Real Money -- There have been dozens of federal programs implemented to support housing with little to show for the effort. The perception of the housing trend between now and November will probably play a big role in the presidential election.

The Total Housing Activity Index is a composite of sales of new and existing homes, new construction permits for single-family homes, and new single-family home starts. Based on this indicator, the housing downturn revealed itself well before the commonly accepted 2007 time frame.

Overall housing activity hit rock bottom in 2010 after a false start that was likely induced by the very generous but temporary first-time homebuyers tax credit of up to $7,500. That absurd waste of taxpayer money simply borrowed home purchases from future periods by accelerating demand before the incentive ran out. Once it was no longer in play, single-family home sales fell off a cliff.

Publicly traded companies in the homebuilding industry have been devastated since peaking in 2006. The declines in revenues and book value were huge over the six-year period. These companies went from extraordinary profitability to deficits between 2005 and 2011. All are burdened with debt-heavy balance sheets.

The results occurred in a period with tremendous government support in place and mortgage interest rates falling to generational lows. All homebuilders face survival risk if housing fails to rally further, or if interest rates start picking up despite the Federal Reserve's promise to keep them artificially low.

Stocks in this industry are only suitable for short-term trading or speculative investing. All but rank speculators should avoid homebuilders, except for swing trading.