Forecast plus what’s driving mortgage rates today
Average mortgage rates edged down again yesterday, as we predicted. That takes them close to their three-year low.
Today, markets seem to be moving in ways that are mildly unfriendly to mortgage rates. This morning’s retail figures were roughly in line with expectations, which might have cheered up investors.
So far, mortgage rates today look likely to rise modestly or possibly hold steady. But, as always, events may overtake that prediction.
|Conventional 30 yr Fixed||3.813||3.813||+0.15%|
|Conventional 15 yr Fixed||3.625||3.625||+0.25%|
|Conventional 5 yr ARM||4.125||4.179||+0.04%|
|30 year fixed FHA||3.25||4.234||-0.08%|
|15 year fixed FHA||3.188||4.135||-0.02%|
|5 year ARM FHA||3.375||4.456||-0.05%|
|30 year fixed VA||3.25||3.432||Unchanged|
|15 year fixed VA||3.063||3.391||+0.02%|
|5 year ARM VA||3.438||3.681||+0.02%|
|Your rate might be different. Click here for a personalized rate quote. See our rate assumptions here.|
Market data affecting today’s mortgage rates
First thing this morning, markets looked set to deliver mortgage rates today that are a little higher, or perhaps unchanged. By approaching 10 a.m. (ET), the data, compared with roughly the same time yesterday morning, were:
- Major stock indexes were all higher. (Bad 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 held steady at $1,553 an ounce. (Neutral 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 held steady at $58 a barrel. (Neutral for mortgage rates because energy prices play a large role in creating inflation.)
- The yield on 10-year Treasurys held steady at 1.80%. (Neutral for mortgage rates.) More than any other market, mortgage rates tend to follow these particular Treasury bond yields
- CNN Business Fear & Greed index edged higher to 88 from 87 out of a possible 100 points. (Bad 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 quiet or slightly worse day for mortgage rates.
Verify your new rate (January 16, 2020)
Economic reports this week
After weeks with few-to-zero blockbuster economic reports, we finally have a decent crop. This week sees publication of the consumer price index (CPI, Tuesday), retail sales (today) and the consumer sentiment index (tomorrow). And any of those could move markets, though none so far has.
Indeed, 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 calendar for economic reports comprises:
- Monday: Nothing
- Tuesday: December CPI (actual +0.2%; forecast +0.3%) and core CPI (actual +0.1%; forecast +0.2)
- Wednesday: December producer price index (actual +0.1%; forecast +0.2%)
- Thursday: December retail sales (actual +0.3%; forecast +0.4%) and retail sales excluding autos (actual +0.7%; forecast +0.6%)
- Friday: December housing starts (forecast 1.370 million units, annualized), industrial production (forecast -0.1%) and capacity utilization (forecast 77.2%). Plus January consumer sentiment index (forecast 99.0 index points)
So there’s plenty for markets to get their teeth into. Additionally, one or more top Federal Reserve people have speaking engagements on four out of five working days this week. They’re unlikely to affect much, unless their comments suggest policy is evolving behind the scenes.
Aside from economic reports, other big events scheduled this week included the signing of the phase-one US-China trade deal yesterday. And the other big events are the publication on various days of earnings reports for the last quarter of 2019 by all the six biggest banks. Those have so far been mixed.
Today’s drivers of change
Yesterday, President Donald Trump took a “momentous step” when he signed the much-heralded, 86-page, phase-one trade agreement with China’s Vice-Premier Liu He at the White House. “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” the president remarked.
The wide-ranging deal covers some important areas, including commitments from China to:
- Buy $200 billion-worth of specific US products over the following two years
- Better protect American companies’ intellectual property
- Stop the transfer of technologies from the US
- Cease manipulating its currency
Yesterday’s Washington Post quoted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Myron Brilliant:
So why did markets respond in such muted ways to the signing?
Critics’ views of the phase-one trade deal
Well, some perceive the deal as weak in key areas:
- No independent dispute resolution — If the US believes China is reneging, it can only engage in further talks and introduce new tariffs
- Some doubt China’s ability to make good on its $200 billion purchasing commitment
- The intellectual property sections contain little that’s new — They mostly restate existing agreements
- There is no provision for reining in China’s system of government subsidies for industries
- It fails to address concerns about cybersecurity and the Chinese hacking of American companies’ IT infrastructures
The White House would argue that those alleged weaknesses will be covered in a phase-two deal. But most think that’s unlikely to materialize until after this year’s presidential election.
But perhaps the deal’s biggest drawback is that it leaves so many tariffs still in place. According to an analysis, published on the day of the phase-one signing, by the Peterson Institute for International Economics:
Even with the phase one deal in effect, Trump will have increased the average US tariff on imports from China to 19.3% from 3.0% in January 2018. The deal means the average US tariff will be reduced only slightly from its current level of 21.0%.
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 that figure.
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. Now that’s signed, you can shave perhaps 11% off that $2,031 cost to the average American household, according calculations by Yahoo! Finance.
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, US trade representative Robert Lighthizer 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.
What 2020 might hold
The year 2019 ended with most stock indexes 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 US 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. However, when polled again in December, 40% expected one within two years.
That December poll also saw a consensus of the economists who responded forecasting disappointing growth in US gross domestic product (GDP) this year. Indeed, most expected it to be in a range between 1.6%-1.9% between now and mid-2021.
The Federal Reserve’s role
And a number of financial reviews of 2019 have warned that market rises have largely been fueled by the Federal Reserve’s actions rather than underlying economic strength. But the Fed’s supply of metaphorical gas to maintain such momentum is running low — as is its willingness to use what’s left.
So market growth this year may be way more modest than in 2019, though many reckon it will remain positive. On Jan. 6, The Financial Times carried an analysis under the headline, “Fed looks forward to ‘boring’ 2020 after frenetic year.”
Don’t take forecasts too seriously
But don’t take such forecasts too seriously. And 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.
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. Any of those could send those rates plummeting.
Just don’t forget John Kenneth Galbraith’s observation.
Rate forecasts for 2020
It may be a mistake to rely on experts’ forecasts. But there’s nothing wrong with taking them into account, appropriately seasoned with a pinch of salt. After all, who else are we going to ask when making plans?
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.
Yesterday, the House of Representatives delivered those articles to the Senate. You may think it unlikely that either 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 …
The Middle East
Well, that didn’t last long. Iran retaliated for the killing by the US of one of its top generals with (bloodfree) missile strikes on bases in Iraq. And neither side was left with any appetite for heightening tensions or escalating the conflict. So the whole thing was over within a few days.
Of course, it’s not really over. Iran still wishes to see all US forces leave the Middle East. And the US would like to see a new, more amenable regime in Tehran. Both sides are likely to continue to work toward those goals, sometimes using munitions.
But, for now, the dispute that threatened a war that might have engulfed the, er, Gulf, the wider Middle East and — according to some — the world is back in sleep mode. And those interested in markets and mortgage rates can now ignore it — at least until someone wakes it up.
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 UK general election on Dec. 12 delivered a majority for Prime Minister Boris Johnson that pretty much assures that Brexit will become law during January or very soon thereafter. That will be followed by a transitional period that will last at least until the end of 2020.
What happens after that could have a huge impact on the British and global economies. But, absent unforeseen upheaval, Brexit now looks unlikely to exert much influence on American mortgage rates, at least until late in the year.
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, on Jan. 3, those yields fell nearly 9 basis points (a basis point is one hundredth of one percentage point). But average mortgage rates inched down by only 1 basis point.
Indeed, 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. True, mortgage rates have been moving within unusually tight ranges in recent months. So the risk of floating for longer may be limited. But the prospect of worthwhile gains seems similarly restricted.
Of course, markets are likely to move more sharply and decisively sometime soon. But the trigger that causes that is far from apparent. And that means the direction in which they’ll take off is equally unknown.
However, none of this means 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.