Interest rate increase – Don’t panic

interest rate increase
45 years of mortgage interest rates

Last week, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) decided to raise the federal funds rate. The federal funds rate is the interest rate that is charged to banks for borrowing overnight funds to maintain the required target funds. Although the Fed interest rate increase means that a banks’ business is getting more expensive, it doesn’t necessarily mean that mortgage interest rates increase in kind.

If mortgage rates are not always affected by the Fed’s interest rate increase, then what is?

Katherine Reynolds Lewis pointed out that the FOMC’s interest rate hike indirectly influences jobs, wages, prices of the things we buy, and other items (7 ways the Fed’s decisions on interest rates affect you; bankrate.com; March 20, 2018). She states, “Sometimes mortgage rates go up when the Fed increases short-term rates, as the central bank’s action sets the tone for most other interest rates. But sometimes mortgage rates fall after the Fed raises the federal funds rate.” An example of this is the seventeen rate increases during 2004-2005 when mortgage interest rates initially dropped, then slightly increased a year later. And most recently, the three Fed rate increases during 2017 when mortgage interest rates remained stable.

The reason why a FOMC interest rate increase doesn’t always affect mortgage interest rates is because mortgage interest rates are tied to the bond market. The bond market is typically a bellwether of the economy. It is highly likely that the bond market baked in last week’s Fed’s rate increase prior to the FOMC announcement. Bond yields have already been increasing due to an improving economy, which pushed mortgage rates higher in recent weeks.

In fact, the Freddie Mac Press release the day after the Fed’s announcement indicated that mortgage rates increased one basis point (freddiemac.com; March 22, 2018):

“The Fed’s decision to raise interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point puts the federal funds rate at its highest level since 2008. The decision, while widely expected, sent the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury soaring. Following Treasurys (sic), mortgage rates shrugged off last week’s drop and continued their upward march. The U.S. weekly average 30-year fixed mortgage rate rose 1 basis point to 4.45 percent in this week’s survey.”

Immediately following the Fed’s interest rate increase, NAR’s chief economist, Lawrence Yun, statedWe are in the middle innings of monetary policy normalization (nar.realtor, March 21, 2018).” Yun believes that the labor market is pushing the Fed to act to stave off inflation. He stated that consumers should expect more rate increases throughout 2018. However, he believes that increased new construction can belay future Fed rate increases:

“Housing costs are also rising solidly and contributing to faster inflation. The one thing that could slow the pace of rate increases would be to tame housing costs through an increased supply of new homes. Not only will more home construction lead to a slower pace of rate hikes, it will also lead to faster economic growth. Let’s put greater focus on boosting home construction.”

Yun’s call to home builders to increase housing stock is preaching to the choir. The housing market’s tight sale inventory should already be spurring home builders to crank out new homes. But there are challenges. The latest new construction statistics released by the US Census (census.gov) indicated that building permits issued during February were 5.7 percent lower than January’s permits, but 6.5 percent higher than last February.

Copyright© Dan Krell
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Quantitative easing housing legacy

quantitative easing
Fed Balance Sheet (infographic from raymondjames.com)

The Fed stopped purchasing mortgage backed securities and other assets through quantitative easing a few years ago.  But the  Fed still maintains the estimated $4.5 trillion of assets it has accumulated by extending asset maturity and reinvesting in the securities.  The result has been historically low interest rates, and bubble-esque home price spikes.  But that may change rapidly over the next six months.

Quantitative easing was a name for the Fed’s “large scale asset purchases” (LSAP) from mid-2008 to 2014.  The purpose of the LSAP was to keep boost the economy and housing markets by keeping interest rates low.  According to the Fed (federalreserve.gov):

In December 2008, as evidence of a dramatic slowdown in the U.S. economy mounted, the Federal Reserve reduced its target for the federal funds rate–the interest rate that depository institutions charge each other for borrowing funds overnight–to nearly zero, in order to provide stimulus to household and business spending and so support economic recovery. With short-term interest rates at nearly zero, the Federal Reserve made a series of large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) between late 2008 and October 2014.

In conducting LSAPs, the Fed purchased longer-term securities issued by the U.S. government and longer-term securities issued or guaranteed by government-sponsored agencies such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The Fed purchased the securities in the private market through a competitive process; the Fed does not purchase government securities directly from the U.S. Treasury. The Fed’s purchases reduced the available supply of securities in the market, leading to an increase in the prices of those securities and a reduction in their yields. Lower yields on mortgage-backed securities reduced mortgage rates as well. Moreover, private investors responded to lower yields on U.S. Treasury securities and agency-guaranteed mortgage-backed securities by seeking to acquire assets with higher yields–assets such as corporate bonds and other privately issued securities. Investors’ purchases raised the prices of those securities and reduced their yields. Thus, the overall effect of the Fed’s LSAPs was to put downward pressure on yields of a wide range of longer-term securities, support mortgage markets, and promote a stronger economic recovery.

In the June Open Market Committee press release, the Fed signaled that it would begin unwinding quantitative easing later in 2017 through “balance sheet normalization.”  Of course, the proviso was that the economy would “evolve broadly.”  The normalizing the balance sheet would “gradually reduce the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings by decreasing reinvestment of principal payments from those securities.”

There is little doubt that the 3.1 percent real Second Quarter 2017 GDP (bea.gov), along with a record breaking housing market during the first half of 2017 was a large part in the decision to move forward with the balance sheet normalization program.  At the very end of September’s Open Market Committee press release, the Fed stated that balance sheet normalization will begin in October.

How will unwinding quantitative easing affect the housing market?

Since the Fed’s announcement last week to unwind quantitative easing, there has been a lot of speculation as to how the housing market will respond.  Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, issued a statement saying that he believes the Fed’s unwinding pace will be “in slow motion” and “mortgage rates would rise up only modestly over time.”  He expects that the 30-year fixed rate would only reach about 4.7 percent by the end of 2018 (nar.realtor).

But a sober 2013 article written by Edward Pinto, a former Fannie Mae executive, pointed out the immediate impact and consequences of quantitative easing (Is the Fed blowing a new housing bubble? wsj.com, April 9, 2013).  Pinto asserted that the home price surge of 2013 was due to the Fed’s LSAP rather than the often cited “broad based improvements in the economy’s fundamentals.”  Pinto stated, “The average mortgage rate during the first nine years of the 2000s was 6.3% compared with today’s [2013] rate of less than 3.5%. If mortgage rates were to increase to a moderate 6% in three years, say, some combination of three things would have to happen to keep the same level of homeownership affordability. Incomes would need to increase by a third, house prices would need to decline by a quarter, or lending standards would need to be loosened even further.”

Maybe the unwinding of quantitative easing is past due.  Home sale prices have since surged past 2006 home prices in some areas, and has considerably reduced the affordability of homeownership for many Americans.  Average wages have not increased significantly (if at all) since quantitative easing began.  Lending has loosened some, but not enough to make up for missing home buyer sectors (such as the move-up home buyer).

Home sellers may be in for a shock in 2018.  Rising interest rates will certainly moderate home prices.  However, rising mortgage rates would likely mean a return to stable housing market.  Mortgage interest rates will rise as sharply as they were reduced when the LSAP began, most likely rising above 5 percent by the end of 2018.

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Home prices surprise

home prices
National home prices exceed peak prices. Home equity increases! (infographic from keepingcurrentmatters.com)

Back in January, I told you that the housing market of 2016 would be about home prices.

2016 housing market hinges on home prices.

A home selling season has not been anticipated so much by home sellers since 2013. It’s not that 2015 was a bad year for housing, because it wasn’t. It’s that many home owners who have been wanting to sell since 2010 (some because of being underwater) may be in position to make the long awaited move.

And indeed, national home sale prices have appreciated considerably through the year.  But who would have thought that home prices would once again approach the level reached during the peak market of 2006?

The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index (spindices.com) reported in July that the index was within 3 percent of peak, with another month of 5 percent appreciation.  And surprise!  This week’s release of home price data indicated that the September’s S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index exceeded the index that was recorded during the peak market that occurred July 2006!  September’s year-over-year gains were due to a 5.5 percent gain to the National Index, while the 20-City composite remained unchanged at a 5.1 percent.

Of course, regional and local differences explain why actual home prices in many areas don’t seem as high as they were during the peak. Consider that Seattle, Portland, and Denver reported the highest annual home price gains with 11 percent, 10.9 percent, and 8.7 percent respectively.  The Washington DC region realized a 2.7 percent increase; which is well below the top gainers, as well as below the national average.  Although the housing markets in Miami, Tampa, Phoenix and Las Vegas experienced the most home price gains during the peak; current home prices in those cities “remain well below their all-time highs.”

Analysis provided in the November 29th press release states:

“The new peak set by the S&P Case-Shiller CoreLogic National Index will be seen as marking a shift from the housing recovery to the hoped-for start of a new advance” says David M. Blitzer, Managing Director and Chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “While seven of the 20 cities previously reached new post-recession peaks, those that experienced the biggest booms — Miami, Tampa, Phoenix and Las Vegas — remain well below their all-time highs. Other housing indicators are also giving positive signals: sales of existing and new homes are rising and housing starts at an annual rate of 1.3 million units are at a post-recession peak.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency (fhfa.gov) also reported continued home price gains last week.  The FHFA Home Price Index (HPI) increased 6.1 percent year-over-year. The November 23rd press release reported that home prices increased in 49 states during the third quarter of 2016 compared to the same period last year.  However, “Delaware and the District of Columbia were the only areas not to see price increases.”

Indications of a strengthening housing market have been reported for many months.  Last year, the National Association of Realtors® (realtor.org) reported that the national median home sale price recorded for June 2015 ($236,400) surpassed the peak national median home sale price established during July 2006 ($230,400).

And if that weren’t enough, existing home sales have also been expanding.  The NAR reported last week that existing home sales increased during October.  The two-month consecutive increase doesn’t only outpace June’s peak, but is now the “highest annualized pace in nearly a decade.”

Existing-home sales ascended in October for the second straight month and eclipsed June’s cyclical sales peak to become the highest annualized pace in nearly a decade, according to the National Association of Realtors®. All major regions saw monthly and annual sales increases in October.

Termed an “autumn revival,” Lawrence Yun NAR chief economist, stated that “October’s strong sales gain was widespread throughout the country and can be attributed to the release of the unrealized pent-up demand that held back many would-be buyers over the summer because of tight supply…Buyers are having more success lately despite low inventory and prices that continue to swiftly rise above incomes.”

As much as we would like home prices to significantly appreciate indefinitely, market forces and economic factors will intervene.  Increasing interest rates is not only consistent with a growing economy, it will likely moderate home prices.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen stated in her November 17th Congressional testimony  regarding monetary policy:

At our meeting earlier this month, the Committee judged that the case for an increase in the target range had continued to strengthen and that such an increase could well become appropriate relatively soon if incoming data provide some further evidence of continued progress toward the Committee’s objectives. This judgment recognized that progress in the labor market has continued and that economic activity has picked up from the modest pace seen in the first half of this year. And inflation, while still below the Committee’s 2 percent objective, has increased somewhat since earlier this year. Furthermore, the Committee judged that near-term risks to the outlook were roughly balanced.

Yellen stated that “an increase could well become appropriate relatively soon.”  Yellen referred to economic strengths as rationale, however analysis of new data should comport with the Open Market Committee’s objectives.  Yellen stated that housing market strengths are favorable for an interest rate increase.  Although new home construction has been “subdued,” the fundamentals of the housing market are complimentary to such a move.

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A hot winter housing market

winter housing market
Winter housing market (infographic from househunt.com)

Winter is not usually a time of year when you would think of selling your home.  After all, everyone gets into holiday and hibernation mode.  Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day (during the winter housing market), home sale inventory is usually trimmed by an average of 50 percent and contract activity is significantly reduced.

But this winter will be different.  Rising interest rates and pent up demand could make the housing market very active this winter.

Consider that mortgage interest rates are on their way up.  Freddie Mac (freddiemac.com) reported last week about a mortgage interest “spike” that can get fence-sitters to jump into the winter housing market.  The rate for the 30-year-fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.94 percent, which jumped from the prior week’s average of 3.57 percent.  On the face of it, the increase doesn’t seem significant.  But the difference is about $70 per month on a $300,000 mortgage.

Last week’s interest rate surge could be the beginning of interest rate increases we’ve been anticipating (for five years).  Speculation is that the bond market is anticipating and pricing in a Fed interest rate hike at next month’s Open Market Committee meeting.  Of course, the next sixty days could be a lead up to new mortgage rate expectations, which could exceed 4.5 percent by the end of next year.

Historically low interest rates for a 30-year-fixed-rate mortgage have become part of our lives.  Upward movement will be met with hyperbole and excitement from the media, claiming reduced home sales and a faltering real estate market.  However, let’s put it in perspective.  Mortgage rates averaged above 4 percent throughout 2014.  The last time we had an average mortgage rate above 5 percent was 2010.  In fact, the average mortgage rate at the height of the go-go market during 2006 was above 6 percent.

What does it mean for you if you’re planning a sale?  Don’t wait until spring!  Consider selling during the winter housing market.  You won’t have much competition; and serious home buyers, who are sensitive to interest rates, will be looking through the holidays and winter.

If you decide to sell during the holidays and the winter housing market, make sure your home is ready. Decluttering is the most important aspect of home preparation.  However, winter decluttering may be more difficult because of the colder weather and our desire to slow down during these months.  Besides our inclination to “nest,” it’s easy to accumulate items in the house that make us cozy and comfortable.  But winter clutter can be minimized by organization and a daily straightening-up for incoming buyers.

Check your home’s systems.  Have licensed professionals inspect your furnace and roof.  Besides keeping the house warm and dry for buyers who visit, checking these systems can prevent surprises when a home inspection is performed.

After a weather event, clear your walkways and driveway of ice and snow.  Besides making it easier for home buyers to visit your home, it lessens the possibility of someone falling and getting hurt.

If your home is vacant, have a licensed professional winterize it. Winterizing your home can reduce the risk of bursting pipes and damaging plumbing fixtures.  If you are out of town, have a trusted person check on the home regularly (even if you are listed with a real estate agent).  Your “stand-in” should also be available to take care of any house related issues that occur in your absence during the winter housing market.

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Is a negative mortgage rate program in your future?

negative interest rates
from thestar.com

Five months ago I told you about the possibility of negative interest rates. Since then a lot has happened around the world (besides confirming the existence of gravitational waves): the Fed raised the target rate a quarter of a point in December; many are increasingly questioning the viability of the global economy; analysts point to geopolitics as a concern for economic stability; and Japan is the latest country to implement negative interest rates.

An increasing number of economists and financial experts have since openly discussed the specter of negative interest rates here in the U.S, as volatility in financial markets and global economies have many concerned. Such concerns may have prompted Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) to pose this question about negative interest rates to Fed Chair Janet Yellen during her testimony in the February 11th hearing “Semiannual Monetary Report to Congress” (banking.senate.gov); “…people are beginning to observe that the Fed is out of ammunition, unless you decide to go to negative ratesI’m not proposing this, I’m just observing what’s happening around the world and what’s happening here in our own country. I think people are waking up and realizing that the Fed has no real ammunition left…”

Even though the Fed recently raised the target rate from being near zero after almost seven years, the Fed anticipates future increases. However, Dr. Yellen stated in the past that negative interest rates are “not off the table” if the economy falters. This was reiterated (more or less) during her February 11th testimony. Interestingly, Dr. Yellen revealed that the Fed considered negative interest rates back in 2010, but felt that negative interest rates would not have worked well to “foster accommodation” (increase money supply to the markets) at that time. Additionally, Dr. Yellen stated that “…we are looking at them again because we want to be prepared in the event we needed to add accommodation…” However, she also stated that the evaluation is not complete as it is not certain if negative interest rates would work well in the U.S.

Negative interest rates may seem like a good idea to stimulate bank lending; but Christopher Swann’s recent CNBC commentary (The consequences of negative interest rates; cnbc.com; February 16, 2016) indicates there are also unintended consequences. Lending, as a result, could tighten because of bank losses and subsequent liquidity issues. Consumers would bear the brunt of the losses as banks would increase fees. As banks try to recoup losses, depositors will be charged for savings; which may prompt consumers to move their money out of banks. Swann points out how Swiss and Danish banks have “…hiked borrowing costs for homeowners since negative rates were introduced.”

A CNN-Money report shed light on European banks and negative interest rate mortgage programs (The crazy world of negative rates: Banks pay your mortgage for you? money.cnn.com, April 22, 2015). Luca Bertalot, Secretary General of the European Mortgage Federation, stated that “We are in uncharted waters.” He went on to describe how banks dealt with the dilemma of negative interest rates, “…they [Spain’s Bankinter’s] could not pay interest to borrowers, but instead reduced the principal for some customers.”

Housing would undoubtedly boom in a negative interest rate environment. However, rather than paying consumers to borrow, a mortgage’s principal would be reduced over time. Rather than creating a bubble, long term negative mortgage rate programs could possibly devalue real estate; and change how we view it as an asset.

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