May 29, 2022

The Zero Sum Game Of Lower Interest Rates And Why Mortgage Rates Will Rise

The Federal Reserve has forced long term interest rates to historic lows in a desperate attempt to “stimulate” both the housing market and the economy in general.  The results have been mixed but the benefits of lower rates to borrowers are undeniable.  Lower rates reduce the cost of large debt burdens carried by many Americans and increases the spending power of those able to refinance.

Exactly how much lower the Fed intends to repress mortgage rates is anyone’s guess but as interest continue to decline, the overall benefits diminish.  Here’s three reasons why the Fed may wind up discovering that the economic benefits of further rate cuts will be muted at best, self defeating at worst.

1.  Lower rates are becoming a zero sum game for the economy as lower rates for borrowers translates into lower income for savers.  Every loan is also an asset of someone else and lower interest rates have merely been a mechanism for transferring wealth from savers to debtors.  Every retiree who prudently saved with the expectation of receiving interest income on their savings have been brutalized by the Fed’s financial repression. Even more infuriating to some savers is the fact that many debtors who took on irresponsible amounts of debt are now actually profiting from various government programs (see Foreclosure Settlement Q&A – A Victory For The Irresponsible).

A significant number of retirees that I know have been forced to drastically curtail their spending in order to make ends meet while others have been forced to draw down their savings.  The increased spending power of borrowers has been negated by the reduced spending power of savers.  This fact seems to elude Professor Bernanke who hasn’t been able to figure out why lower rates have not ignited the economy.

2.  Many consumer who would like to incur more debt are often turned down by the banks since their debt levels are already too high.  Those who can borrow often times chose to deleverage instead, considering the fragile state of the economy.  Anyone saving for a future financial goal (college tuition, home down payment, retirement, etc) is forced to reduce consumption and increase savings due to  near zero interest rates.  The Federal Reserve has destroyed Americans most powerful wealth building technique – the power of compound interest.  A 5% yield on savings will double your money in about 14.4 years while a 1% yield will double your money in 72 years – and that’s before taxes and inflation.

3.  As mortgage rates decline into uncharted territory, the mathematical benefit of lower rates diminishes.  As can be seen in the chart below the absolute dollar amount of monthly savings as well as the percentage decrease in the monthly payment diminish as rates race to zero.

Benefits of a refinance on a $200,000 mortgage diminish as rates decline

% Rate Mo Payment Mo Savings % Reduction Yearly Savings
6.00% $1,199.00
3.00%    $843.00 $356.00 29.70% $4,272.00
1.50%    $690.00 $153.00 18.10% $1,836.00
0.75%    $621.00  $69.00 10.00%    $828.00

Closing costs at lower rates also become problematic, making it impossible to recapture fees within a reasonable period of time.  With closing costs of $8,000 on a $200,000 mortgage refinance, it would take a decade to recoup closing costs.

Many astute analysts have made elaborate and compelling arguments that interest rates can only go lower.  From a contrary point of view, I believe that a future rise in interest rates is a high probability event.  This is the opposite of my prediction in March 2009 when I surmised that mortgage rates would decline to 3.5% – see 30 Year Fixed Rate of 3.5% Likely.

The Chart of the Day has a long term chart of the 10 year treasury and notes that the recent sharp decline in interest rates “has brought the 10-year Treasury bond yield right up against resistance of its 26-year downtrend channel.”

 

Would Mortgage Rates At 3.625% Stimulate Home Purchases?

percentThe Limitation of Low Rates

The Fed has done everything under its power to bring down mortgage rates and the best customer today can get a 30 year fixed rate mortgage at around 4.75%.  Despite the all time low in mortgage rates, the housing market continues to suffer as foreclosures and mortgage delinquencies mount.  If mortgage rates dropped even lower, say to 3.625%, would such a low rate stimulate the purchase of houses?  Rock bottom rates offered by some home builders give us some insight into this question.

Mortgage Rates Cut By Builders

As mortgage rates fall to near historic lows, some home builders are offering even lower interest rates, in an effort to lure buyers amid the slow spring selling season.

The latest sales promotion: Lennar Corp. is offering a fixed 3.625% rate over the life of a 30-year fixed rate mortgage. The deal is besting average rates that have fallen below 5% nationwide, but it comes as other builders are reporting mixed results from similar incentives.

Hovnanian Enterprises Inc.’s recent offer of a 3.99% rate sparked “underwhelming” interest from home buyers, says Dan Klinger, president of the builder’s mortgage operation. “It wasn’t like we needed crowd control,” says Mr. Klinger.

Bargain mortgage rates are the latest sales strategy from builders struggling to sell homes. Mounting unemployment continues dogging the sector, because people without jobs, or those afraid of losing one, are unlikely to purchase, no matter how low the rate.

The builders’ low rates may help first-time home buyers, “but it’s not going to goose the trade-up market,” says Thomas Lawler, a housing economist. “That’s because most trade-up buyers use the equity from their previous home for a down payment, and that equity often doesn’t exist any more.”

While some builders acknowledge that price cuts are the most effective way to move inventory, such cuts could cause buyers who have already bought a house at a higher price to walk away from their deposits.

It Always About Jobs

Apparently, low mortgage rates can help but not cure the sick housing market.  Bailouts and stimulus spending may help housing in the short run but in the long term it’s always about jobs.  Until the economy starts to recover and jobs become secure, potential home buyers will lack the confidence to purchase homes.   Expensive homeowner bailouts and foreclosure holidays accomplish little in addressing the underlying fundamental problems of housing.   Once the jobs come back, the housing market will cure itself.

Unfortunately a housing recovery based on income and job growth just became less likely.  The ADP March employment report just released shows major job losses in every sector of the economy.  Non farm private employment plunged by 742,000 jobs in March.  This is the 15th consecutive month of job losses with no hint of recovery on the horizon.   Anyone looking for a fast recovery in the housing market will be disappointed.

30 Year Fixed Rate Of 3.5% Likely As Mortgage Rates Plunge

Fed Goes All In

The Federal Reserve announced that it intends to purchase massive amounts of mortgaged backed securities and long term treasury debt.  Yields on the 10 year treasury, from which mortgage rates are based, saw the biggest drop in yield since 1962.

Since mid December of last year the yield on the 10 year treasury had risen from a low of 2.07% to a high of almost 3% yesterday.  Almost half of that 50% increase in yield was erased today as the ten year closed at 2.53%.

Given the Fed’s open ended determination to lower mortgage rates, it is very likely that we may see the 30 year fixed rate mortgage at 3.5% or lower.  The Fed’s plan to purchase a massive amount of mortgage backed securities is certain to cause a large drop in mortgage rates.

U.S. central bankers decided yesterday to buy as much as $300 billion of long-term Treasuries and more than double mortgage-debt purchases to $1.45 trillion, aiming to lower home-loan and other interest rates.

Yesterday’s decisions will add $750 billion in purchases this year of mortgage-backed securities issued by government- sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, for a total of $1.25 trillion. The Fed has already announced $217.1 billion in net purchases out of $500 billion planned through June, under a program unveiled in November.

The central bank will also double to as much as $200 billion this year its planned purchases of debt issued by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Federal Home Loan Banks. The Fed bought $44.4 billion of the so-called agency debt

The rationale for seeing generational lows in rates is the same as I proposed on January 12, 2009.

30 Year Mortgage Rates – Is 3.5% Possible?

The Federal Reserve’s direct purchases of mortgage backed securities initiated late last year was successful in its goal of lowering mortgage rates.   The Fed’s direct purchases of MBS has stabilized the mortgage market and lowered rates.  There are arguments being put forth that due to the Fed’s intervention, mortgage rates have artificial price support.  Nonetheless, if the historical yield spread between the bond and the 30 year mortgage is re-established, we may see a 30 year fixed rate in the 3.5% range.  Something to think about for those contemplating a mortgage refinance.

Last week, a borrower with excellent credit, necessary income and home equity was able to obtain a par rate of 4.5%.   The question of whether the Fed is manipulating mortgage pricing at this point or how long such price support can last is somewhat irrelevant.  The major fact to keep in mind is that the Fed appears to be relentless in its campaign to drive down mortgage rates.   If the Fed can stabilize the MBS market we may be looking at mortgages rates in a range we never thought possible a short time ago.

30 year fixed rate mortgages in the mid 3% range would cause a huge refinance surge.  Keep in mind that over the past five years, homeowners had multiple opportunities to refinance in the low 5% range.  Unless the borrower is taking cash out, it usually does not pay to refinance for less than a one percentage point reduction.   At 3.5% rates, it would make sense for almost every homeowner with a mortgage to refinance again.