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.

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