Can we really see negative mortgage rates?

real estateSome speculate that it is possible for the Fed to set negative rates to stave off deflation; something that happened in Europe earlier this year.

Can you believe that 30-year fixed rate conventional mortgage rates have been below 5% for about five years? Rates have essentially been hovering around 4% (plus/minus) for the last three years. To put it in perspective, you’d probably have to go back to the 1940’s to get a lower rate. To contrast, rates from 1979 through the 1980’s were in double digits; and according to Freddie Mac’s Monthly Average Commitment Rate And Points On 30-Year Fixed-Rate Mortgages Since 1971 (, the average mortgage commitment rate reached a peak of 18.45% during October of 1981.

With such low rates, it’s hard to imagine signing up for a mortgage at 18%, or 10%, or even 7% interest. Keep in mind that the consensus is that the average mortgage rate over the last forty years has been about 8.75%. And as economists have anticipated rising rates since 2011, rates have actually decreased.

Many thought that Fed would finally begin to raise the federal funds rate towards the end of this year. However, an interesting thing happened last week from probably the most anticipated Fed meeting ever. On September 17th, the Fed’s Open Market Committee issued a statement on the economy and monetary policy, and left the federal funds rate unchanged at a target rate of 0% to 1/4%. Although mortgage rates are not directly influenced by the federal funds rate, they are indirectly affected because the federal funds rate is the rate in which banks borrow money.

Initially it appears to be good news from the Fed’s September 17th press release, housing was described as improving, and it is felt that mortgage rates will likely to remain relatively low for the short term. However, in a press conference following the Fed statement, Fed Chair Janet Yellen referred to housing as “depressed.” Depressed is certainly not the description that anyone was expecting of a housing market that has seen slow improvement. Yet, it’s not the first time Yellen expressed concern for housing; she raised concerns about a housing market slowdown last year.

Should we also be concerned when others are optimistic? Maybe Yellen sees something that we do not. An August 16th 2013 Washington Post piece by Neil Irwin and Ylan Q. Mui details Yellen’s background and how she predicted the housing crisis and forecasted the following financial crisis (Janet Yellen called the housing bust and has been mostly right on jobs. Does she have what it takes to lead the Fed?). It’s not that Yellen is clairvoyant, as far as anyone knows, but rather her ability to connect the correct data points. In last week’s press conference she cited that housing was basically not improving in step with other economic indicators, such as employment.

So when will interest rates go up? Some speculate that it is possible for the Fed to set negative rates to stave off deflation; something that happened in Europe earlier this year. And in a couple of European counties, such as Spain, you could get a negative interest mortgage! CNN-Money reported on European negative interest rates, quoting Luca Bertalot (secretary general of the European Mortgage Federation) to say “We are in uncharted waters.” And described Spain’s Bankinter’s negative interest rate dilemma, saying that “they could not pay interest to borrowers, but instead reduced the principal for some customers (The crazy world of negative rates: Banks pay your mortgage for you?;, April 22, 2015).”

Copyright © Dan Krell

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