In Depth

Persimmon bolstered by housing demand

Rising house prices a double-edged sword as margin pressures mount on Persimmon Homes

by Sean Flynn, Shares magazine

With the housebuilding sector on something of a tear again, largely as a result of the new-found certainty delivered by the Conservative Party's surprisingly decisive victory in the general election, Persimmon is pursuing a strategy that does not differ too dramatically from that of its high-end peers.

Shares in most housebuilders have rebounded significantly since pre-election jitters as the markets show their approval for five more years of Tory rule.

Valued at around £6.1 billion, Persimmon ranks third among the UK's housebuilders and has, since the financial crisis, adopted what has gone on to become the sectoral norm of maintaining low debt levels and opting to build for margin rather than volume.

This strategy is serving Persimmon well. Yet from the perspective of those looking to get on the housing ladder, this prudent management of margins and debt could be seen as exacerbating an increasingly problematic housing market where affordability and rising foreign buy-to-let ownership – particularly in overheated London – are unlikely to go away as dinner party conversation topics any time soon.

In this case, those criticisms may be misplaced. Since Persimmon does not operate in the capital, it cannot really be blamed for the city's escalating housing crisis. And the Fulford-based builder has seen housing volumes increase by more than a third over the past two years.

Persimmon's economy of scale means that it is well placed to continue capitalising on the UK's seemingly insatiable need for new housing stock. In the UK, we need between 200,000 and 250,000 new homes built every year, while recent government data suggests that in 2013-14 only 140,930 dwellings were completed.

A trading update from Persimmon in April suggested that customer confidence continues to be supported by ongoing improvement in the UK's economic performance, while at the same time, the mortgage market continues to offer customers the opportunity to access credit on very attractive terms. Government support in the form of the Help To Buy scheme continues to buoy the builders and this is expected to run until 2020.

The sector's fundamentals remain positive but there are potential clouds on the horizon when it comes to input costs such as land, labour and materials. Like most of the builders canvassed, Persimmon seems happy enough that it can manage these inputs at their current levels without compromising operating margins. Labour and materials are, we are told, not presenting any major issues but this would seem at odds with much of the anecdotal evidence and furthermore the paucity of skilled labour is being flagged by trade bodies.

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