One of Wall Street's most unhappy industries is finally getting a little bit of good news. For the last couple of years or so, the US housing industry - and all the investments related to it - have looked like a dilapidated tar-paper shack.
High interest rates and the financial troubles of mortgage lending institutions have combined for a one-two punch that has kept millions of people out of the housing market and hit every sector of the home building and financing industry, including construction, wood products, appliances, and many savings-and-loans.
But last week some help came from two US government-sponsored friends of the housing industry, the Federal National Mortgage Association (''Fannie Mae'') and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (''Freddie Mac'').
Fannie Mae introduced four new mortgage plans aimed at making housing financing more affordable. The idea is to reduce initial loan payments for home buyers, making it easier for them to qualify for mortgages.
Freddie Mac's assistance comes in the form of an expanded program to permit mortgage lenders - including S&Ls, mortgage bankers, banks, and private mortgage companies - to obtain commitments ranging from $5 million to several hundred million dollars' worth of mortgage securities. The lenders would then have about six months to find mortgages they could swap for these securities.
While these measures do not by themselves suddenly make the housing industry a good investment, Wall Street observers note, they could help get the ball rolling in the right direction. The ball will get its real push when mortgage rates come down to more affordable levels.
''Interest rates have got to come down,'' said Jonathan Goldfarb, a vice-president at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. But Mr. Goldfarb notes that the assistance will be welcome. ''The health of the housing industry is directly related to the health of the financial industry,'' he says. ''I think it is a very important process that is going on.''
In addition, he noted, the help is coming at a time when housing industry stocks are at historic lows - so low, in fact, that they ''are a good investment now, precisely because they are so low.'' About the only direction they can go now is up, and the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac programs should help provide a push in that direction.
It will take a while to see how big a push. The financing programs ''will help some, but not a great deal,'' commented Michael Sumichrast, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. He expects interest rates to come down somewhat this year and help bring brighter days to the housing industry in late 1982 and early '83.
The poor condition of the thrift industry was clearly seen late last week, when the Federal Home Loan Bank Board reported that US savings-and-loan associations watched depositors withdraw a record $25.5 billion from savings accounts in 1981. At the same time, the S&Ls' net worth dropped to $28.4 billion from 1980's $33.3 billion. A big reason for this, the board said, was skyrocketing interest rates that left thrifts paying more in interest than they were earning from older mortgage loans, squeezing and finally eliminating profits.
On top of this, millions of depositors were putting their money in uninsured but higher-interest money market mutual funds.
In this condition, the thrifts will take whatever help they can get. Freddie Mac's assistance, called Guarantor Phase II, calls for two monthly ''auctions,'' in which lenders swap older, low-yielding mortgages for Freddie Mac securities, called mortgage participation certificates (PCs). These certificates, worth from needs to write more mortgages. Presumably, the law of supply and demand should help keep interest rates down, or at least level.
The first auction is to be held March 1. The program could draw $10 billion to $20 billion into mortgage lending in 1982, Freddie Mac president Philip R. Brinkerhoff said.
Ginnie Mae's programs, instead of helping the mortgage lenders, are aimed directly at home buyers. One of them involves ''buy down'' mortgages. Under this arrangement, the home seller, builder, buyer's relatives, or the buyer himself makes a lump-sum payment to the mortgage lender when the loan is written. This supplements, and lowers, the buyer's payments in the early years of the mortgage. Fannie Mae then buys these mortgages in a package, which provides more money for loans.
In addition to the buy-down program, Fannie Mae is offering to buy three kinds of adjustable-rate mortgages with graduated payment plans.
* * * Love those economic indicators!
After looking for something to lift it out of the doldrums, the stock market grabbed hold of the Commerce Department's index of leading economic indicators. This index, unlike many other economic measures, which look at what happened in the past, tries to forecast what will happen in the future. On Thursday the indicators were up 0.6 percent, signaling that the recession may soon hit bottom. On this news, the Dow Jones industrial average took a one-day jump of 21 .59 points, its biggest gain in 10 months. For the week, the Dow rose 26.07 points, closing at 871.10.