Forecast plus what’s driving mortgage rates today
Average mortgage rates edged downward yesterday, as we predicted. It was only a small drop. But, added to other recent ones, it was enough to take those rates to their lowest level in very nearly a month. What a way to start a year.
Markets today are highly likely to be disrupted by yesterday’s killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani by a US drone. Earlier, oil and gold prices spiked and stock indexes fell on fears of a possible military escalation. While nerves has since settled a little, those movements have only moderated. The silvery lining? Such worries are good for mortgage rates.
So mortgage rates today look likely to fall. But, as always, events may overtake that prediction.
|Conventional 30 yr Fixed||3.792||3.792||-0.04%|
|Conventional 15 yr Fixed||3.417||3.417||Unchanged|
|Conventional 5 yr ARM||4.5||4.342||-0.02%|
|30 year fixed FHA||3.25||4.234||Unchanged|
|15 year fixed FHA||3.25||4.198||+0.04%|
|5 year ARM FHA||3.417||4.509||+0.08%|
|30 year fixed VA||3.292||3.473||Unchanged|
|15 year fixed VA||3.25||3.58||Unchanged|
|5 year ARM VA||3.375||3.698||+0.06%|
|Your rate might be different. Click here for a personalized rate quote. See our rate assumptions here.|
About the Daily Rate Update
Market data affecting today’s mortgage rates
First thing this morning, markets looked set to deliver mortgage rates today that are lower. By approaching 10 a.m. (ET), the data, compared with roughly the same time yesterday morning, were:
- Major stock indexes were appreciably lower. (Good for mortgage rates.) When investors are buying shares they’re often selling bonds, which pushes prices of Treasurys down and increases yields and mortgage rates. The opposite happens when indexes are lower
- Gold prices soared to $1,550 an ounce from $1,531. (Good for mortgage rates.) In general, it’s better for rates when gold rises, and worse when gold falls. Gold tends to rise when investors worry about the economy. And worried investors tend to push rates lower
- Oil prices rose to $63 a barrel from $61. (Bad for mortgage rates, because energy prices play a large role in creating inflation)
- The yield on 10-year Treasurys fell to 1.81% from 1.87%. (Good for mortgage rates.) More than any other market, mortgage rates tend to follow these particular Treasury bond yields
- CNN Business Fear & Greed index fell to 87 from 96 out of a possible 100 points. (Good for mortgage rates.) “Greedy” investors push bond prices down (and interest rates up) as they leave the bond market and move into stocks, while “fearful” investors do the opposite. So lower readings are better than higher ones
Today might be a another good day for mortgage rates.
Verify your new rate (January 3, 2020)
Economic reports this week
It’s another quiet week for economic reports. Indeed, it’s rare for any of those on this calendar to move markets far.
And yesterday’s drone strike at Baghdad International Airport will likely overshadow everything else, making today’s economic reports largely irrelevant. However, this morning’s Institute of Supply Management (ISM) manufacturing index was the worst in a decade, and might have pushed mortgage rates even lower.
But, of course, every economic report has the potential to make waves if it unexpectedly presents figures that are catastrophically terrible or exceptionally good.
That’s because markets tend to price in analysts’ consensus forecasts (below, we use those reported by MarketWatch) in advance of the publication of reports. So it’s usually the difference between the actual reported numbers and the forecast that has the greatest effect.
And that means even an extreme difference between actuals for the previous reporting period and this one can have little immediate impact, providing that difference is expected and has been factored in ahead.
Although there are exceptions, you can usually expect downward pressure on mortgage rates from worse-than-expected figures and upward on better ones. However, for most reports, much of the time, that pressure may be imperceptible or barely perceptible.
This week’s calendar
This week’s airy calendar for economic reports comprises:
- Monday: November pending home sales (actual +1.2%; previous -1.3%)
- Tuesday: October Case-Shiller home price index (actual +3.3% annual rate; previous month +3.2%) and December consumer confidence index (actual 126.5 index points; forecast 130.2)
- Wednesday: Nothing — Markets closed for New Years Day. This daily column from The Mortgage Reports was not published
- Thursday: Nothing
- Friday: December Institute of Supply Management manufacturing index (actual 47.2%; forecast 48.4%) and November construction spending (actual +0.6%; forecast +0.5%)
So another light week for economic reports.
Today’s drivers of change
Some are reporting that recent stock-market highs have partly been fueled by renewed optimism over the prospects for a trade deal with China. And that optimism may be boosted by President Donald Trump’s announcement on Dec. 31 that his phase-one deal will be signed on January 15.
But, on Monday morning, The Financial Times ran an analysis under the headline, “Market faith in US-China trade deal is misplaced.” And the current edition of The Economist notes:
The “phase one” agreement trims tariffs and obliges China to buy more from American farmers. But do not be fooled. It is a modest accord that cannot disguise how the world’s central relationship is at its most perilous juncture since before Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong re-established links five decades ago.
Most sharp movements in mortgage rates in recent months have been down to alternating optimism and pessimism over the US-China trade dispute. Indeed, that dispute has probably been the main driver of changes in most markets as they’ve moved in line with emerging and receding hopes of a resolution.
Phase-one trade deal
And, on Dec. 13, a form of resolution seemed to be reached. Yet most markets didn’t respond by soaring, as you might have expected. Instead, ones that affect mortgage rates moved modestly lower. And they’ve only edged up since. So why is that?
Well, mainly for four reasons:
- The phase-one deal is yet to be signed. Yes, a date (Jan. 15) has now been set for the signing. But we’ve been here before
- The rollback of existing tariffs is modest. Yahoo! Finance estimated that tariffs on imports from China would be down only 11% after the deal is implemented
- Much of the detail of what it contains remains unclear
- Based on what is known, some doubt that it addresses properly the things that bother the US most about China’s trade and business practices
Those doubts were enough to stop markets celebrating. Still, it’s true that some tariffs have been abandoned and that China has promised to buy more farm produce from us. And both those are good for American consumers and farmers.
Regardless of day-to-day dramas, many would welcome any signs of this trade dispute heading toward a genuine resolution. True, the Dec. 13 deal, if signed, has headed off new tariffs and rolled back at least some (perhaps 11% of) existing ones. But the situation before it was challenging.
A new round of American tariffs on Chinese goods became operative on Sept. 1. The Peterson Institute for International Economics reckoned that brought the average US tariff on imports from that country to 21.2%, up from 3.1% when President Trump was inaugurated.
And this dispute has been causing some pain to both sides. China’s slipped to third place from first in the Census Bureau’s list of America’s trading partners. And its economy is certainly under strain. But the dispute’s impact here has also been painful for many.
Higher prices for American families
A September study by the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy estimated, “the tariffs will cost the average household $2,031 per year, and will be recurring so long as the tariffs stay in effect.” The White House would undoubtedly challenge all those figures.
But, on Dec. 2, New York Federal Reserve Bank researchers published a report that showed that American businesses and consumers were indeed bearing the brunt of the tariffs. They found Chinese import prices fell by only 2% between June 2018 and September 2019. And that means Americans were picking up the rest of the tab on tariffs as high as 25%.
Of course, both those studies were conducted before the new phase-one deal was announced. If that’s signed, you can shave perhaps 11% off that $2,031 cost to the average American household.
Jobs at risk
As bad, on Nov. 22, Moody’s Analytics’ chief economist Mark Zandi published a report suggesting that the US economy had lost 300,000 jobs as a direct result of this trade dispute.
Again, the new phase-one deal may eventually moderate that figure. But it’s unlikely to make big inroads.
Yes, unemployment is already at a near-record low. But it could be even lower (and wages higher, based on The Tax Foundation’s figures) absent the US-China dispute.
European Union next?
The president occasionally makes bellicose remarks about what he perceives to be an unfair trade imbalance between the US and the European Union. The EU is the world’s biggest trading bloc. Together, its member states form a larger economy than China or even America.
But, on Dec. 17, Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, made an ominous remark. He said that President Trump is now “focused” on trade with the EU. The Financial Times that day interpreted the comment as meaning “the Trump administration was ready to escalate its trade confrontation with the EU.”
The administration has already in 2019 imposed tariffs on nearly $10 billion worth of imports from the EU, including $2.4 billion on French luxury goods in December.
How trade disputes hurt
All this has been fueling uncertainty in markets. And that, in turn, is creating volatility. Many of the recent wild swings in mortgage rates, bond yields, stock markets, and gold and oil prices have been down to hopes and fears over trade.
Markets generally hate trade disputes because they introduce uncertainty, dampen trade, slow global growth and are disruptive to established supply chains. President Trump is confident that analysis is wrong and that America will come out a winner.
However, some fear a trade war — possibly on two or more fronts — might be a drag on the global economy that hits America hard. And that fear, in turn, is likely to exert long-term downward pressure on mortgage rates, relieved only by hopeful news.
For the sake of the economy, we must hope that the Dec. 13 phase-one deal turns out better than some expect — and that it’s eventually signed. But those who want lower mortgage rates may be disappointed if those wishes come true before they lock.
What 2020 holds
The year 2019 ended with most markets at exceptional or record highs. And investors have had one of the best 12 months in living memory. So will 2020 bring more of the same?
Few think it will. But most economists, analysts and observers seem to believe we’re looking at an OK year. Certainly, fewer are expecting a recession during the period than was the case a few months ago. When Reuters polled economists in November, only 25% thought one was likely, down from 35% in October.
But a number of financial reviews of 2019 have warned that markets have largely been fueled by the Federal Reserve’s actions rather than underlying economic strength. And the Fed’s supply of gas to maintain such momentum is running low — as is its willingness to use it. So market growth this year may be way more modest than in 2019, though many reckon it will remain positive.
However, read on to discover John Kenneth Galbraith’s assessment of economic forecasting.
Lower mortgage rates ahead?
It’s not hard to find experts who predict that mortgage rates could plumb new depths in 2020. And they may be proved right. A recession still might arise. The US-China trade talks could collapse and the dispute escalate. Some undreamed-of crisis could come out of nowhere. Indeed, yesterday’s killing of an Iranian general may turn out to be the start of just such a crisis. Any of those could send those rates plummeting.
So, by all means, take cheer from these predictions. But never forget a remark made by the late Harvard economics professor John Kenneth Galbraith:
The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.
Rate forecasts for 2020
It may be a mistake to rely on experts’ forecasts. But there’s nothing wrong with taking them into account. After all, who else are we going to ask?
Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) each has a team of economists dedicated to monitoring and forecasting what will happen to the economy, the housing sector and mortgage rates. And here are their latest forecasts, all published in December, for each quarter (Q1, Q2 …) in 2020 of the average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage:
Freddie Mac reckons that particular mortgage rate averaged 3.9% during 2019. So, if the experts’ forecasts turn out to be right, it could be another good year for new mortgage borrowers — and for existing ones who want to refinance.
Negative mortgage rates
Just don’t expect zero or negative mortgage rates in America anytime soon. Still, they’re not unthinkable within a year or two.
Already, Denmark’s Jyske Bank is offering its local customers a mortgage with a nominal interest rate of -0.5%. Yes, that’s minus 0.5%. However, after fees, that’s likely to be closer to a free or incredibly cheap mortgage than one that actually pays borrowers.
But don’t think there isn’t a wider price to pay for ultralow mortgage rates. On Dec. 18, The New York Times reported that, in much of Europe, these are “driving a property boom that is pricing many residents out of big cities and causing concern among policymakers.” And many fear a bubble that could end badly.
On Dec. 18, in a vote almost wholly along party lines, the House of Representatives passed two articles of impeachment against President Trump. One is for abuse of power and the other for obstruction of Congress.
What happens next is unclear. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last Wednesday night that she might hold off on sending the matter to the Senate for trial, at least until that chamber decides on how it will structure its procedures. And some Democrats suggest holding them back through to the November 2020 election. You may think it unlikely that either article will survive a trial in the current Republican-dominated Senate.
On Sept. 25, The New York Times suggested moves in the House to impeach the president may have only a limited effect on markets. It used the word “fleeting” to describe the probable impact. And, at least so far, its prediction seems to be holding up, in spite of some dramatic scenes on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, on Dec. 19, the Times reiterated that view:
… the stock market has been largely unfazed by the news of impeachment proceedings, and that is unlikely to change …
Having won the UK general election with a handsome majority on Dec. 12, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to push ahead with Brexit quickly. His Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which enables the deal he struck with the EU in October, was passed by the House of Commons on Dec. 20.
That bill was revised on Dec. 17 to outlaw any extension to the date for completion of an EU-UK trade deal, namely the end of 2020. But that gives the two sides less than a year to negotiate a hugely complicated agreement. If they fail to conclude one in that short period, a “no-deal Brexit” (the version that almost all economists warn could be devastating to the UK economy and harmful to the global one) might be hard to avoid. Markets reacted badly to the news.
December 20 was just the beginning of the process of enactment. And, while Johnson hopes that process will be short, his bill could meet opposition in the House of Lords, where a majority opposes any form of Brexit.
But don’t be gulled by analogies between that house and the US Senate. The Lords can only review legislation, suggest amendments and slightly delay bills. In the end, the Commons has the only real say, under a constitution that’s based on the principle of the “fusion of powers.” So an early Brexit is as close to certain as anything can be.
What is Brexit?
For the first time since 2016, Brexit was playing a major role in the determination of American mortgage rates during part of October. Brexit is Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) after 46 years of membership of the world’s largest trading bloc.
A nonbinding (advisory) referendum in June 2016 saw a small majority of voters in favor of leaving. But the simple in-or-out question disguised a vastly nuanced series of issues that made it impossible for legislators to find a compromise that a majority could support. And only now, following that Dec. 12 election, has the legislative logjam been broken. Markets are generally happy.
What might Brexit mean?
But there’s a paradox here. Global markets would probably prefer there to be no Brexit at all. Many see it — and especially a no-deal version — as an epic act of national self-harm that could impact the world economy — and so American mortgage rates.
But markets — in common with much of the UK population — are so fed up with the long period of uncertainty (42 months and counting) since the referendum that they’d rather see the process finished than wait longer for a better outcome.
On the morning following the election, JPMorgan’s head of global currency strategy Paul Meggyesi summed up this paradox:
The market is in danger of conflating the removal of political uncertainty with the reversal of the economic impact of Brexit. That strikes us as being highly optimistic verging on the implausible.
Treasurys and mortgage rates
Why are mortgage rates currently so often out of sync with the markets they usually shadow? After all, markets are generally interdependent.
During economically worrying times (the opposite happens when confidence is high), investors sell stocks because they fear a downturn. But they have to put their money somewhere. So they buy lower-yield but safer “risk-off” investments, such as US Treasurys, gold and mortgage-backed securities (MBSs).
MBSs are bundles of individual mortgages, wrapped up within a bond-like “security” (a tradable financial asset) and sold on a secondary market. And, the more investors want to buy them, the lower the mortgage rate you’re likely to be offered.
Markets in sync
Usually, the flows of money are fairly even across risk-off markets. So you can typically assume that gold and bond prices will go up or down roughly in line both with each other and inversely with falling or rising stock prices.
And the same applied to MBSs. In fact, the relationship between 10-year Treasury yields and mortgage rates was for years so close that many (wrongly) assumed the two were formally linked.
Why the change?
But nobody could make that mistake now. For example, between our report on the morning of November 1 and markets closing on the afternoon of the next business day, those yields climbed to 1.79% from 1.70%. But average mortgage rates edged up by only 2 basis points (a basis point is one hundredth of one percentage point) across those two trading days.
Indeed, such divergences have become routine.
So why are the MBSs that actually determine mortgage rates drifting apart from risk-off investments generally and those Treasury yields in particular? There are three main reasons:
- Investors are concerned they’re not being rewarded sufficiently for the extra risk they shoulder when they buy MBSs rather than Treasury bonds. In particular, the US Treasury never welshes or redeems its bonds early, making those ultrasafe and predictable. Meanwhile, mortgage borrowers often refinance and occasionally default
- Some are worried about government reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. On Oct. 28, National Mortgage Professional magazine suggested, ” … we have now seen the implementation of the first steps, some of which have only increased market volatility.”
- The things that spook or please investors in Treasury bonds don’t always apply to mortgage-backed securities
And another factor affects mortgage rates rather than MBSs themselves. Mortgage lenders are distrustful of extreme volatility and often take a wait-and-see stance before adjusting the rates they offer
Those Treasury yields are one of the main indicators (see the “market data” list above for others) we use to make predictions about where rates will head. And, with those tools more unreliable than usual, we sometimes struggle to get our daily predictions right. Until the relationship between rates, yields and other indicators gets back in sync, you should bear that in mind.
Rate lock recommendation
We suggest that you lock if you’re less than 30 days from closing. Some professionals are recommending locking even further out from closing. And we wouldn’t argue with them.
However, that doesn’t mean we expect you to lock on days when mortgage rates are actively falling. That advice is intended for more normal times.
Of course, financially conservative borrowers might want to lock immediately, almost regardless of when they’re due to close. After all, current mortgage rates remain exceptionally low and a great deal is assured. On the other hand, risk-takers might prefer to bide their time and take a chance on future falls. But only you can decide on the level of risk with which you’re personally comfortable.
If you are still floating, do remain vigilant right up until you lock. Continue to watch key markets and news cycles closely. In particular, look out for stories that might affect the performance of the American economy. As a very general rule, good news tends to push mortgage rates up, while bad drags them down.
When to lock anyway
You may wish to lock your loan anyway if you are buying a home and have a higher debt-to-income ratio than most. Indeed, you should be more inclined to lock because any rises in rates could kill your mortgage approval. If you’re refinancing, that’s less critical and you may be able to gamble and float.
If your closing is weeks or months away, the decision to lock or float becomes complicated. Obviously, if you know rates are rising, you want to lock in as soon as possible. However, the longer your lock, the higher your upfront costs. On the flip side, if a higher rate would wipe out your mortgage approval, you’ll probably want to lock in even if it costs more.
If you’re still floating, stay in close contact with your lender, and keep an eye on markets.
Bearing in mind professor Galbraith’s warning, I personally recommend:
- LOCK if closing in 7 days
- LOCK if closing in 15 days
- LOCK if closing in 30 days
- FLOAT if closing in 45 days
- FLOAT if closing in 60 days
But it’s entirely your decision.
What causes rates to rise and fall?
Mortgage interest rates depend a great deal on the expectations of investors. Good economic news tends to be bad for interest rates because an active economy raises concerns about inflation. Inflation causes fixed-income investments like bonds to lose value, and that causes their yields (another way of saying interest rates) to increase.
For example, suppose that two years ago, you bought a $1,000 bond paying 5% interest ($50) each year. (This is called its “coupon rate” or “par rate” because you paid $1,000 for a $1,000 bond, and because its interest rate equals the rate stated on the bond — in this case, 5%).
- Your interest rate: $50 annual interest / $1,000 = 5.0%
When rates fall
That’s a pretty good rate today, so lots of investors want to buy it from you. You can sell your $1,000 bond for $1,200. The buyer gets the same $50 a year in interest that you were getting. It’s still 5% of the $1,000 coupon. However, because he paid more for the bond, his return is lower.
- Your buyer’s interest rate: $50 annual interest / $1,200 = 4.2%
The buyer gets an interest rate, or yield, of only 4.2%. And that’s why, when demand for bonds increases and bond prices go up, interest rates go down.
When rates rise
However, when the economy heats up, the potential for inflation makes bonds less appealing. With fewer people wanting to buy bonds, their prices decrease, and then interest rates go up.
Imagine that you have your $1,000 bond, but you can’t sell it for $1,000 because unemployment has dropped and stock prices are soaring. You end up getting $700. The buyer gets the same $50 a year in interest, but the yield looks like this:
- $50 annual interest / $700 = 7.1%
The buyer’s interest rate is now slightly more than 7%. Interest rates and yields are not mysterious. You calculate them with simple math.
Mortgage rate methodology
The Mortgage Reports receives rates based on selected criteria from multiple lending partners each day. We arrive at an average rate and APR for each loan type to display in our chart. Because we average an array of rates, it gives you a better idea of what you might find in the marketplace. Furthermore, we average rates for the same loan types. For example, FHA fixed with FHA fixed. The end result is a good snapshot of daily rates and how they change over time.