Jun 192018

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By G. Steven Bray

Rates have had it good lately:

– First up was the inflation report. It matched expectations. While this put the core rate at 2.2%, above the magic 2% mark, markets were worried it would be higher. Additionally, the Fed’s favored inflation metric, the PCE, continues to be below 2%.

– Next came the Federal Reserve. While the Fed raised short term rates as expected and increased the chances of a 4th rate hike this year, Chairman Powell said that he wasn’t concerned at all with inflation getting out of control and, maybe more importantly, that we’re getting closer to a “neutral Fed funds rate.” Analysts concluded that the trajectory of Fed policy is about as tight as it’s going to get, and bond markets sighed in relief.

– The next day brought the European Central Bank meeting. The ECB did announce it will end its asset purchase program by the end of the year, a negative for rates. However, it also said it doesn’t expect to hike rates until the end of next summer, and the ECB president made a case for economic weakness during his press conference. Bond markets cheered.

– Finally, we were treated to tariff Twitter. Markets don’t really care about the imbalances caused by prior administations’ trade policy. More important is the uncertain effects of the various proposed tariffs. I still say a full-blown trade war is unlikely. The targets of the tariffs have more to lose, and negotiation is the most likely outcome. However, the uncertainty may keep a lid on rates for now.

Jun 052018

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By G. Steven Bray

As expected, the Italian drama was temporary, and interest rates moved back up last week. Fortunately, markets seem unconvinced that anxiety won’t return. Rates have leveled out for now during a fairly quiet week for economic data.

Next week could be a very different story. Both the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank meet, and output from those meetings has a high potential to affect the direction of rates. While it seems almost certain the Fed will raise short term rates again at this meeting, it’s Fed head Powell’s post-meeting press conference and the dot-plot that probably will garner the most market attention. Any suggestion that the Fed will be more aggressive could push rates back up to their recent highs.

I think the ECB has a greater chance to push rates the other way. It’s been hinting it will end it’s easy money policy in the near future. Confirmation of that is probably more likely than denial, but the ECB has been cagey in its responses to the rumors. It still could dissipate market energy without an outright denial.

Turning to economic data, we’ve been watching inflation lately. The PCE index, the Fed’s favored measure, continues to show tame inflation with the core reading still below the magic 2% mark. However, the jobs report showed wage inflation ticked up slightly. Other measures show even faster wage growth. As long as the PCE doesn’t accelerate, I suspect the Fed won’t change its rate hike trajectory, which is neutral for rates. However, if the Consumer Price Index starts to rise, it’s likely to change consumer and investor inflation expectations, and that would be bad for rates.

Rate update: Watch Italy if you want lower mortgage rates

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May 232018

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By G. Steven Bray

Last time we discussed the case for lower mortgage rates and the fact that unexpected headlines could put some downward pressure on rates. Well, that seems to be the case this week. In addition to news about trade negotiations with China, the Korean and Iranian nuclear deals, and the political drama in Washington, markets had to digest political headlines out of Italy.

Italian headlines affecting US mortgage rates? There’s a good reason for it, and one possible outcome could lead to significantly lower rates.

Italy recently held parliamentary elections with no party taking a majority. However, populist parties that generally oppose Italy’s membership in the European Union had strong showings, and two of them agreed to form a coalition government.

From a market standpoint, the EU represents stability. Much as the Brexit vote caused rates to plummet, an EU breakup could do the same. Italy is the third largest economy in the EU, and while it probably could survive Italy’s departure, that departure could cause other, smaller countries opposed to EU reforms to bolt as well.

For now, I think it would be smart to take advantage of the dip in rates as I think it will be temporary (absent more headlines). The coalition parties have pared back some of their more radical proposals, and it would take many months for them to implement the ones that remain. However, it’s another drip in the bucket trying to pull rates back down from their 7-year highs.

Cool map helps you decide whether to rent or buy

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May 192018

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By G. Steven Bray

For many, the decision whether to rent or buy can be a confusing one. I’ve found a multitude of surveys and tools that claim to help you with the decision, but with so much information, analyzing your own situation can be overwhelming.

I came across an interesting Web site the other day that analyzes the rent vs buy data in an easy-to-digest format – a US map using shading to indicate whether buying or renting makes more sense. The map presents the results on a county-by-county basis, and you can zoom in to see the specific results for your county.

The map also allows you to choose a breakeven point – the point at which buying and renting are equally advantageous. Set this to the number of years you think you would live in the same location, and the map resets the shading to show you areas where buying or renting is better.

Finally, it’s important to consider the assumptions used to produce the map. The producers used US Census data to determine average rents and home prices. For the “buy” scenario, the producers assumed a 20% down payment, a 4.5% mortgage rate, and $2000 in closing costs. The last two could be a bit low depending on your situation, and unfortunately, many folks don’t have 20% for a down payment. Give me a call if you want me to calculate the breakeven point for your specific situation.

Record number say good time to sell a home

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May 182018

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Fannie Mae’s housing index soared to a record high last month despite a negative reading from one of the index’s key components. The net share of respondents who said now is a good time to sell a home increased 6 points from last month to 45%. This good-time-to-sell sentiment has been on a steady rise for the last couple years, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have resulted in additional home inventory for sale, which remains very low.

Respondents also reported stronger personal financial conditions. They expressed an increased sense of job security, and more reported that their incomes had increased significantly in the last year.

The net share of respondents who think home prices will continue to rise jumped 7 points this month, and the average expected increase was 3.9%. While that might seem a negative for homebuyers, respondents said they expect rents to rise an average 5.7% over the same period.

The one black mark in the survey was the net share of respondents who think now is a good time to buy. That component fell 3 points last month. It’s likely the combination of higher prices, higher mortgage rates, and fewer homes for sale contributed to the fall. However, these same factors may increase buyers’ sense of urgency even if they don’t think it’s a good time to buy.

Rate update: The case for lower rates

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May 092018

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By G. Steven Bray

Mortgage rates seem to have plateaued again – waiting for the another source of inspiration to set them on a new course higher or lower. Which course is more likely?

The mainstream narrative is that higher rates are inevitable because of the factors we discussed a couple weeks ago, namely more government borrowing, less Federal Reserve accommodation, and continued economic growth.

These factors are undeniable. What we don’t know is the extent to which the market already has priced them in. Maybe rates have plateaued because they already reflect the risks associated with these factors. If that’s true, markets may increasingly pay attention to other factors that could lead to lower rates.

Consider the following:

– While the Fed’s favored measure of inflation, the PCE, moved higher, close to the Fed’s 2% target, it did so because very low inflation readings from last year are dropping out of the calculation. Moreover, transitory factors, hospital costs and oil prices, seem to be causing much of the recent rise.

– While the unemployment rate dropped below 4% for the first time since 2000, employment growth missed expectations for the second straight month, and wage growth also was below expectations.

– The economic expansion is long in the tooth. Talking heads increasingly are warning of a downturn just because it’s been so long since the last one. European economies already look softer.

– Global headlines are starting to grab market attention again. Israel is warning of imminent war in the Middle East, and the President’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal adds some uncertainty to the region. On the other side of the continent, while a trade war with China still seems unlikely, talk of it creates uncertainty, and uncertainty exerts downward pressure on rates.

– Finally, it’s probably not too soon for markets to start thinking about the effects of the mid-term elections.

I still think the upward forces on rates will remain stronger in the short term. However, absent some additional positive momentum, the chances are increasing that the next significant move for rates could be lower.

The main reason homeowners won’t sell their homes

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May 012018

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By G. Steven Bray

Survey after survey recently has shown that homeowners think it’s a good time to sell their homes. Recently, we reported an all-time high, 65% of respondents, ascribed to that sentiment in a Fannie Mae survey. A recent ValuedInsured survey said the percentage is 79%. So, if it’s such a good time to sell, why aren’t more homes for sale?

Pundits have speculated about many reasons, but one of the top suggestions has been the interest rate effect. Most homeowners have been able to finance or refinance their homes at very low interest rates. Now that rates are higher, they don’t want to trade in that low mortgage payment for a higher one.

This may be a valid concern for some folks, but in the ValueInsured survey, only 18% of respondents cited it. The overwhelming majority, 79%, said they weren’t selling because of the price they’d end up paying for a new home. In the same survey, 61% of respondents said they’re waiting for home prices to become more “reasonable” before moving.

I can see why homeowners would be nervous given reports of bidding wars and nearly double-digit yearly price increases in some markets. Unfortunately, when everyone feels nervous at the same time, it exacerbates the home inventory shortage, which leads to more price increases and more bidding wars.

This “time the market” argument seems like a serious hurdle to seeing more homes for sale. However, I suspect just a moderation of home price increases could calm nerves a bit. If homeowners could predict the price of their replacement homes, we could see an easing of the shortage.

Rate update: The factors pushing mortgage rates higher

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Apr 262018

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By G. Steven Bray

Rates have risen to their highest level in 4 years. The 30-year fixed rate is toying with 5% again. So, is the magic over for the housing market?

That may be a tad melodramatic. The truth is we have several factors putting upward pressure on rates right now, and market sentiment seems to line up with those factors. The truth also is even at 5% rates still are historically low. While higher rates definitely impact housing affordability, recent history shows a robust housing market can be compatible with still higher rates than today.

So, what are the chances we see lower rates again? First, let’s review the factors pushing rates up.

– The government is borrowing more, and it finances that borrowing by selling bonds. Basic economics say more supply usually leads to lower prices, which for bonds means higher rates.

– The Federal Reserve is buying fewer bonds. Again, it’s basic economics. Less demand tends to result in higher rates.

– The Fed is hiking rates. While the Fed only directly affects short-term interest rates, its actions often put pressure on longer term rates.

– Finally, economic growth remains robust. While inflation still appears to be contained, history says economic growth can lead to inflation, which pushes rates higher.

It’s interesting the effect higher rates have had on what I’ll call market psyche. Most talking heads have been bemoaning the 10y Treasury bond rate breaching 3% again. I’ve seen several articles predicting doom and gloom ahead. The scary thing about this is that such talk, if it becomes prevelant, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t see that yet. Consumer and business sentiment remains very high, but it will be important to watch that data going forward.

So, in the short term, I don’t see any reason to expect lower rates absent some extraordinary event that none of us wants. The course of rates later in the year likely will depend on how markets react to today’s elevated rates.

Rate update: Rates on inflation watch

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Apr 102018

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By G. Steven Bray

Mortgage rates stayed in their very narrow range last week as the bond market weathered the wild swings in the stock market. Interest rates often benefit from big down days in equities, but the gyrations have become so routine that they’ve muted flight to quality bond buying that would benefit rates.

So, rates have budged little in about 2 months. What could change that?

We were watching last week’s jobs report as a potential catalyst. The jobs number was surprisingly weak, and wage growth was inline with expectations. Rates barely budged, probably because the weakness was attributed to weather.

This week we have two potential sources for upset, both on Wed. First is the Consumer Price Index. Markets have been poised for an uptick in inflation for months, which has kept some upward pressure on rates. Recent CPI reports have continued to show minimal inflation, but markets are anxious. A higher-than-expected reading on Wed could shoot rates higher and quickly.

The second potential source is the release of the Federal Reserve meeting minutes. The Fed verified that it’s on course to raise rates two more times this year, but some Fed watchers are convinced the Fed is secretly thinking three times. While the short-term rates the Fed controls don’t directly affect mortgage rates, the reason the Fed would add a rate hike – higher inflation or more robust economic growth – would add some lift to rates. Markets will be exercising their secret decoder rings to see if they can glean some hidden message in the minutes.

The risk for floating your rate is greatest Wed morning. If we don’t get any surprises, rates are liable to stay range-bound for the rest of the week.

Rate update: Higher wages mean higher rates

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Apr 032018

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By G. Steven Bray

It’s another jobs report week, and this one comes at an interesting time for mortgage rates. Bonds rallied at the end of Mar pushing rates down to their lowest levels in over a month, but the gains felt almost too good to be true.

Two factors seem to be supporting higher rates right now. First, we have a fairly robust economy. Job growth continues and, in fact, was quite strong last month. GDP growth looks like it will hit 3% this year. While housing data has been underwhelming, it likely is due to external factors, namely limited numbers of existing homes for sale and various impediments to building new homes.

The second factor concerns inflation. We’ve discussed this many times, and we also have discussed that so far most inflation reports continue to show an absence of significant inflation. But investors keep looking and looking.

And that brings us to the jobs report. Expectations are for continued strong job growth, so that shouldn’t stir interest rates much. However, I suspect investors will be keenly interested in another part of the report: wage growth. Remember that Jan’s report of higher wages caused rates to leap. Some of the air left that balloon last month when wages fell back again. So, which will it be this month?

I’d say the odds don’t favor floating your rate through the week. A higher wage growth reading is likely to cause more damage than you could gain from a lower reading.