May 25, 2022

Mortgage Rates At 10% a Real Possibility If Inflation Can’t Be Reduced

Mortgage Rates Explode to 12 Year High

This year has seen one of the most explosive mortgage rates increases in history.  In a matter of a few short months the 30-year fixed rate mortgage has almost doubled from the high 2’s to over 5%. There have been previous periods of time during which rates rose substantially but 2022 has been a vertical move up that is rarely seen.

30-year fixed mortgage

Why rates have risen so quickly is no mystery.  After months of Federal Reserve talk of “transitory inflation” it has become clear that inflation is here to stay and likely to get worse before it gets better. The Fed must increase rates significantly to have any chance of reducing the inflation rate since current rates are far below the rate of inflation.

This from the WSJ:

During the 1980s, when Paul Volcker’s Fed was desperate to avoid a repeat of the inflation of the 1970s, interest rates were on average more than 4 percentage points higher than inflation. Leave aside the fact that at the moment the Fed Funds target rate is an extraordinary 7 percentage points below inflation; markets aren’t bracing for the Fed to be truly hawkish in the long run. Investors still think there’s no need, since in the long run inflation pressures will abate.

This is probably a mistake. The inflationary pressures from Covid and war will surely go away eventually. But self-fulfilling consumer and business expectations of inflation are rising, and a bunch of longer-term inflationary pressures are on the way. These include the retreat of globalization, massive spending to shift away from fossil fuels, more military spending, governments willing to run loose fiscal policy, and a starting point of an overheated economy and supercheap money.

If interest rates continue to rise, we may be looking at another housing bust similar to what we saw in 2018.

Mortgage Rates at 5% Could be the Low for 2022

A few short months ago at the end of 2021, 30-year mortgage rates hit their lowest level in history in the low 3.25% range.  Since that time rates have skyrocketed by 50% to a shade below 5%.  Increased rates have occurred as the Federal Reserve was forced to raise rates due to a rapidly increasing rate of inflation resulting in double digit price increases for many products and services.

Any one expecting rates to decline from here is likely to be disappointed.  Both wage and price inflation have become embedded in the economy as shortages of workers and products relentlessly drive prices higher.  Trying to tame inflation while at the same time keeping the economy running at full speed is the biggest challenge the Fed has faced in the past thirty years when short term rates approached 20%. 

None of this has been on the boom/bust mortgage industry as thousands of workers have been laid off as mortgage refinances plunge and purchases slow down. 

According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, refinance volume has plunged 60% below levels one year ago.

… The Refinance Index decreased 15 percent from the previous week and was 60 percent lower than the same week one year ago. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index increased 1 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index increased 1 percent compared with the previous week and was 10 percent lower than the same week one year ago.

“Mortgage rates jumped to their highest level in more than three years last week, as investors continue to price in the impact of a more restrictive monetary policy from the Federal Reserve. Not surprisingly, refinance application volume declined further, as fewer borrowers have an incentive to apply at rates that are significantly higher than a year ago. Refinance application volume is now 60 percent below last year’s levels, in line with MBA’s forecast for 2022,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA Senior Vice President and Chief Economist…

The average interest rate for a conforming 30-year fixed rate conforming loan with a 20% down payment in now at about 4.8%. Although the mania in the purchase market continues, it’s only a matter of time until activity declines due to higher rates and dramatically increased home prices.  Potential purchasers are being squeezed as wages lag far behind the increases in the cost of living and housing.   

If the Fed engages in multiple half point rate hikes as they are suggesting, expect mortgage rates to steadily increase.

An Economic Puzzle – Consumer Confidence Hits Six Year High While Majority of Americans Say U.S. Still in Recession

courtesy: forbes.com

If everyone from the Fed Chairman on down to the average man in the street seems confused about how the economy is doing, well, it’s because they are. The economy is still in a recession, a depression or an emerging boom depending on who you listen to. Two recent news articles published days apart highlight the divergence of opinion on the state of economic affairs.

Consumer Confidence Revisits High Set in 2007

Americans are more confident about the economy than at any time since July 2007, a survey found, suggesting consumers will spend more and accelerate growth in the months ahead.

The University of Michigan said on Friday that its final reading of consumer sentiment in July was 85.1. That’s up one point from June and nearly 13 points higher than a year ago.

Rising home prices and steady job gains are bolstering household wealth and income. The proportion of Americans who expect their inflation-adjusted incomes to rise in the coming year is greater than at any time since late 2007, the survey found. And the percentage of Americans who say their home values have risen is also at a six-year high.

Majority of Americans Say U.S Still in Recession

The economy may be sputtering along. But it hasn’t been in recession for more than four years. More than half of Americans think it still is.

A majority of people — 54% — in a new McClatchy-Marist poll think the country is in an economic downturn, according to the survey conducted last week and released Tuesday.

The McClatchy-Marist poll found that Americans who earn less are more likely to think the economy is in a recession. Of those earning less than $50,000 a year, nearly two-thirds say the downturn is still underway. For those earning more than that, only 47% think so.

Is it any wonder that Bernanke swings from tapering to easing in the same week? The Federal Reserve, packed with PhD economists, seems as equally confused about the state of the economy as the average consumer.

After considering the divergent opinions, two general conclusions regarding the economy are possible here.

-Predicting the future is a fool’s game, and
-Consumers who have well-paying jobs, money in the bank and rising incomes are far more likely to be optimistic about the future than someone with no job and no money.

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.”

 

Optimists On Housing Recovery May Have To Wait Another Decade – Humpty Dumpty Vs The Fed

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Housing prices were never supposed to decline year over year.

Economic depressions were supposed to be a relic of the past.

If the economy weakened, the Fed would fix everything with lower interest rates and Congress would pass some new laws to create new jobs.

If things got really tough, the government would temporarily increase the debt and the magic of Keynesian economics was supposed to quickly “re-stimulate” the economy.

Our children were expected to lead more prosperous lives.  They were not supposed to move back in with Mom and Dad after four expensive years of college – arriving on the doorstep with a diploma in one hand, student loan notes in the other, telling us that they couldn’t find a job.

Day by day, we are discovering that a lot of things that were never supposed to happen are happening and no one seems able to turn things around.

The Federal Reserve and the White House promised to re-inflate the collapsed humpty dumpty real estate bubble with printed money and bailout programs for banks and defaulted homeowners.

An ex Princeton professor, now Chairman of the Federal Reserve, spent his life studying the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  He was supposed to know how to prevent another one, or so he assured us.

Fast forward to 2022 – housing prices that were supposed to have recovered a decade ago are still at levels seen more than 20 years ago.

Not possible you say?  Optimists and shills for the housing industry might want to consider some inconvenient truths.

Will the U.S. have 20 years of stagnant home prices?

What if real estate prices remain the same for another decade?  As I look at economic trends in our nation including the jobs we are adding, it is becoming more apparent that we may be entering a time when low wage jobs dominate and home prices remain sluggish for a decade moving forward.  Why would this occur?  No one has a crystal ball but looking at the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, growth of lower paying jobs, baby boomers retiring, and the massive amount of excess housing inventory we start to see why Japan’s post-bubble real estate market is very likely to occur in the United States.  It is probably useful to mention that the Case-Shiller 20 City Index has already hit the rewind button to 2003 and many metro areas have already surpassed the lost decade mark in prices.  This is the aftermath of a bubble.  Prices cannot go back to previous peaks because those summits never reflected an economic reality that was sustainable.

Courtesy: doctorhousingbubble.com

The days of “no doc” loans are long gone and not likely to return anytime soon.  Lenders have reactivated a quaint old mainstay of mortgage underwriting and now require borrowers to verify the capacity to service debt payments.  Higher home prices require rising incomes but real incomes for many Americans have been declining for decades.

The income of the typical American family—long the envy of much of the world—has dropped for the third year in a row and is now roughly where it was in 1996 when adjusted for inflation.

The income of a household considered to be at the statistical middle fell 2.3% to an inflation-adjusted $49,445 in 2010, which is 7.1% below its 1999 peak, the Census Bureau said.

The Census Bureau’s annual snapshot of living standards offered a new set of statistics to show how devastating the recession was and how disappointing the recovery has been. For a huge swath of American families, the gains of the boom of the 2000s have been wiped out.

Earnings of the typical man who works full-time year round fell, and are lower—adjusted for inflation—than in 1978.

Gary Shilling, who correctly called the housing bubble collapse, tells the Wall Street Journal that housing prices could decline another  20% or more.

It will take a 22% drop to return median single-family house prices to the trend identified by Robert Shiller of Yale University that stretches back to the 1890s and prevailed until the housing bubble began. (It adjusts for inflation and the tendency of houses to get bigger over time.) And corrections usually overshoot on the downside just as bubbles do on the upside.

The problem is excess inventories. They are the mortal enemy of prices, and we’ve calculated an excess of two million housing units, over and above normal working levels of inventories of new and existing homes. That is huge, considering that before the housing market collapsed, about 1.5 million new homes were being built annually, a figure that shrank to 568,000 in February. At current rates of housing starts and household formation, it will take four years to work off the excess inventory, plenty of time for those surplus houses to drag down prices.

Additionally, our inventory estimate doesn’t even include future foreclosures, some five million of which are waiting in the wings. The 49% drop in new foreclosures since the second quarter of 2009 is a mirage, and was partly due to the Obama administration pressuring mortgage lenders to try to modify troubled mortgages to keep people in their homes. (They were largely unsuccessful.)

We can say that “We are not Japan” but every passing day proves otherwise.  And for those misguided souls who still believe that the government and Fed can put humpty dumpty back together again, don’t you think that if they could have they would have?

Nine Reasons Why You Should Absolutely Not Own Gold

As the mainstream press becomes more aware of gold’s decade long advance, the chorus of reasons for not owning gold seems to become louder ever day.   What if the conventional thinkers are correct?  Is gold an over owned and over priced asset that was run up by uninformed investors who are now on the verge of incurring steep losses?

With an open mind, this writer decided to dispassionately review the reasons for NOT owning gold.  I read numerous articles detailing why gold is a bad investment, why it should not have increased in price and why it is certain to disappoint investors.   At the conclusion of my reading exercise, it became obvious that there are, in fact, reasons why gold should be avoided.

I have listed, in no particular order, nine sound reasons for not owning gold.  If you believe that the following events will occur, there is absolutely no reason to own gold, other than perhaps an occasional jewelry purchase.

  1. The Federal Reserve and other central banks worldwide will institute sound money policies that eliminate inflation and maintain the purchasing power of their currencies.
  2. The world economy is on the verge of a golden era of long term, uninterrupted real economic growth.
  3. The risk of default by over indebted nations, businesses and consumers will disappear as the world economy enters a period of high growth.
  4. The return on competing assets such as real estate, bank savings, stocks and bonds will all exceed the return available from holding gold, a non income producing asset.
  5. The rate of inflation will remain minimal.
  6. The benefit of gold’s negative correlation in a portfolio will become unnecessary due to the elimination of black swan events by world governments.
  7. The price of oil and other commodities will remain stable due to abundant and uninterrupted supplies.
  8. The central banks and other large gold holders will liquidate gold positions to redeploy assets into higher return paper assets.
  9. The belief  that gold has intrinsic value, a concept dating from the dawn of human civilization, will gradually disappear as the glow of world prosperity ushers in a new era of  intellectual enlightenment.

Americans Stubbornly Deny All Time High In Personal Income

American workers should be celebrating the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Commerce that show personal income at all time highs.  Since taking a rather sharp dip during the recession of 2008-2009, personal income has soared to almost $13 trillion, up from $12 trillion in early 2009.

Getting Americans to believe that their incomes have actually increased is another story.  While the Department of Commerce is reporting all time highs in income,  another survey released by Fannie Mae shows the opposite.

Fannie Mae (FNMA.OB) conducts a National Housing Survey every quarter that polls homeowners and renters in depth about their confidence in homeownership, overall confidence in the economy and the current state of their household finances.

The latest National Housing Survey for the fourth quarter of 2010 polled 3,407 Americans and the results do not reflect the rosy income numbers reported by the Department of Commerce.

The survey revealed that 62% of all respondents believe the U.S. economy is on the wrong track, 60% reported that monthly household income was the same as a year ago and 34% said that their monthly expenses were “significantly higher” than a year ago.  Only 19% of those polled said their incomes were significantly higher.

Keep in mind that Americans do not normally “inflation adjust” their perception of personal income – when respondents say that their income has not changed, it means they are receiving the same absolute amount of dollars, unadjusted for inflation.

Total personal income may have increased but income gains seem to have been limited to a small minority of Americans.

In any event, if most Americans have not seen an increase in their monthly incomes, there is little reason for comfort going forward.  As higher oil and commodity prices work their way through the system, the basic cost of living will increase for everyone.  If that’s not enough, once Fed Chairman Bernanke’s obsession with creating higher inflation succeeds, we are all apt to feel poorer.

Federal Reserve Super Low Rate Policy Crushes Savers And The Elderly

Fed Sees Solution In Zero Rates

The Federal Reserve recently vowed to keep interest rates “exceptionally low”  for the foreseeable future in an attempt to revive the economy.   Since mid 2006 the Fed has brought the Fed Funds Rate down from 5% to virtually zero in an attempt to reduce the debt service burden on over leveraged borrowers.

fredgraph

A world of ultra low interest rates may continue for much longer than many expect.

Fed To Keep Rates Low  (WSJ) –  Fed officials voted unanimously to maintain their target for the key federal-funds interest rate — at which banks lend to each other overnight — near zero and said they expect to keep it there for an “extended period,” which suggested increases are at least several months off.

While consumers are spending, the Fed noted they were “constrained by ongoing job losses, sluggish income growth, lower housing wealth and tight credit.” Meanwhile, “businesses are still cutting back on fixed investment and staffing, though at a slower pace.”

A low interest rate policy has worked in the past to stimulate the economy and the Fed is applying the same prescription to the current economic downturn.   At this point, it is too early to tell if the same policies of super low rates and easy money will work as it has in the past.  Japan stands out as the premier example of a post bubble economy still failing to recover despite twenty years of super easy fiscal and monetary policies.  The Fed prescription of attempting to revive an overly indebted economy with more lending may very well produce the same results as in Japan – slow economic growth, lower incomes and crushing public debt burdens.

Individuals who were prudent enough to save and avoid debt are now left to  wonder if they will ever see a return on their savings.  Short term CD’s are below 1%, money market funds pay a ridiculously low rate barely above zero and short term treasuries have a negative yield.   Those who are retired and depend on interest income for living expenses must now deplete their savings or take on more risk by investing in higher yielding bond funds subject to substantial market fluctuations.

The Fed’s low interest rate policy effectively represents a massive wealth transfer from savers to debtors.   FDIC insured deposits of bank savings and CDs currently total $4.8 trillion and there is approximately $5 trillion in money market funds for a total of $10 trillion that is earning at best 1% compared to 5% in 2006.  The drop in interest rates from 5% to 1% represents an annual income loss to savers of $400 billion dollars per year.

Congress and the Fed have attempted to bailout out every imprudent debtor  with super low interest rates – homeowners who borrowed too much, bankers who lent foolishly, and hundreds of poorly run, over indebted companies from GM to AIG.   Someone always pays in the end and in this case, the victims are the savers.

More On This Topic

Near-Zero Rates Are Hurting The Economy

Feds Finally Move To Restrict Excessive Bank Compensation And Risk

Bailout Funds Go To Bank Bonuses

Banks that lost billions of dollars on speculative  investments and poor loans have routinely been awarding thousands of employees massive bonus payments.  Ironically, the only reason many of these banks are still in business and able to pay bonuses is due to the fact that they were bailed out by the taxpayers via the TARP program.

It is difficult to understand the lack of sensitivity exhibited by the bank’s compensation committees considering the populist outrage and criticism by politicians from both parties.  Consider Bankers Reaped Lavish Bonuses During Bailouts:

Nine of the financial firms that were among the largest recipients of federal bailout money paid about 5,000 of their traders and bankers bonuses of more than $1 million apiece for 2008, according to a report released Thursday by Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York attorney general.

All told, the bonus pools at the nine banks that received bailout money was $32.6 billion, while those banks lost $81 billion.

Some compensation experts questioned whether the bonuses should have been paid at all while the banks were receiving government aid.

“There are some real ethical questions given the bailouts and the precariousness of so many of these financial institutions,” said Jesse M. Brill, an outspoken pay critic who is the chairman of CompensationStandards.com, a research firm in California. “It’s troublesome that the old ways are so ingrained that it is very hard for them to shed them.”

Private firms that risk private capital on high risk leveraged investments should be free to compensate themselves as they see fit.  Banks, on the other hand, have been playing a “heads I win, tails you lose” game, risking depositor money (guaranteed against loss by the FDIC), suffering no consequences for bad decisions and collecting lavish bonuses for horrendous results.  The issue of why banks are allowed to risk taxpayer money on speculative activities was recently raised by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker – Volcker Seeks Bank Limits.

In his speech, Volcker urged limits on the activities of banks that are considered “too big to fail,” going beyond what other officials in the Obama administration have advocated.

“I do not think it reasonable that public money –taxpayer money — be indirectly available to support risk-prone capital market activities simply because they are housed within a commercial banking organization,” Volcker said.

“Extensive participation in the impersonal, transaction- oriented capital market does not seem to me an intrinsic part of commercial banking,” Volcker said. “Substantial involvement in heavily leveraged finance and heavy proprietary trading almost inevitably entails risks.”

“I want to question any presumption that the federal safety net, and financial support, will be extended beyond the traditional commercial banking community,” he said.

Paul Volcker was probably not the only one wondering why banks are operating outside traditional banking areas and risking taxpayer funds.  Volcker’s speech seemed to hint that regulators were belatedly preparing to restrict both bonus payments and unwarranted risk taking by the banking industry.  Following up on Volcker’s comments, the Federal Reserve today  proposed dramatic restrictions on both bonuses and risky investment activity by financial institutions.

Wall Street Journal – Policies that set the pay for tens of thousands of bank employees nationwide would require approval from the Federal Reserve as part of a far-reaching proposal to rein in risk-taking at financial institutions.

Under the proposal, the Fed could reject any compensation policies it believes encourage bank employees — from chief executives, to traders, to loan officers — to take too much risk.

The U.S.’s largest banks, about 25 in number, would get especially close scrutiny. The central bank intends to compare these banks as a group to see if any practices stand out as unusually dangerous to their firms.

The Fed itself believes it has the legal authority to take such action through its existing supervisory powers, which are designed to oversee a bank’s soundness.

Pay is now seen as a factor that could make a firm, and more broadly the financial system as a whole, vulnerable to collapse. The financial crisis turned up many examples of how pay can give employees incentives to take risks. One example: loan officers who churned out thousands of low-quality loans in order to claim annual bonuses for themselves.

In a Wednesday speech, Former Fed Chairman Paul A. Volcker noted that one of the causes of the financial crisis “was the ultimately explosive combination of compensation practices that provided enormous incentives to take risks” just as new financial innovations “seemed to offer assurance — falsely, as it has turned out — that those risks had been diffused.”

The policies would apply to banks regulated by the Fed, not savings-and-loans or state banks that are overseen by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Will Fed Proposals Prevent The Next Banking Crisis?

If the Fed believed it had the legal authority to restrict undue risky activity at financial institutions, the obvious questions is why were these rules not implemented before the banking system imploded?  Regulators constantly reacting to disasters after they occur does not instill a strong sense of confidence that new regulations will prevent the next crisis.