Curve

Mortgage rates today, January 21, 2020, plus lock recommendations

Peter Warden
The Mortgage Reports editor

Forecast plus what’s driving mortgage rates today

Markets were closed yesterday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and this report did not appear. Average mortgage rates nudged higher on Friday, as we predicted. Of course, the tiny rises on Thursday and that day still leave those rates very low by almost any standards. And a couple of mildly disappointing days don’t make a trend.

Still, they might suggest that markets are far from committed to keeping rates low. If anything, those are drifting, and waiting for news that will set them off more decisively in a particular direction. But that could be up or down. So far this morning, markets are acting in friendly ways toward those who want lower mortgage rates. They’re perhaps spooked by a deadly virus that’s spreading among humans in Asia.

So far, mortgage rates today look likely to fall. But, as always, events may overtake that prediction.

Program Rate APR* Change
Conventional 30 yr Fixed 3.75 3.75 Unchanged
Conventional 15 yr Fixed 3.458 3.458 Unchanged
Conventional 5 yr ARM 4 4.109 -0.07%
30 year fixed FHA 3.417 4.402 Unchanged
15 year fixed FHA 3.25 4.198 Unchanged
5 year ARM FHA 3.458 4.507 +0.02%
30 year fixed VA 3.292 3.473 Unchanged
15 year fixed VA 3.167 3.496 Unchanged
5 year ARM VA 3.333 3.664 +0.02%
Your rate might be different. Click here for a personalized rate quote. See our rate assumptions here.

» MORE: Check Today’s Rates from Top Lenders (January 21, 2020)

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 on Friday morning, were:

  • Major stock indexes were all 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 fell to $1,550 an ounce from $1,557. (Bad 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 inched down to $58 a barrel from $59. (Good for mortgage rates because energy prices play a large role in creating inflation.)
  • The yield on 10-year Treasurys fell to 1.79% from 1.84%. (Good for mortgage rates.) More than any other market, mortgage rates tend to follow these particular Treasury bond yields
  •  CNN Business Fear & Greed index edged lower to 86 from 89 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 better day for mortgage rates.


Verify your new rate (January 21, 2020)

This week

Something new

Something changed last week. For the first time in a very long time, there’s no monster haunting Wall Street. For many months, the US-China trade deal has dominated investors’ thinking. And Brexit and tensions with Iran have made brief appearances.

Suddenly, since the trade deal signing last Wednesday, nobody’s waiting for the next headline to drop. Trade, Iran and Brexit have all been put to bed (though they may not stay there). Even the Federal Reserve has signaled its plans for the rest of 2020, subject to change.

Nothing lasts

Of course, this new lack of monsters won’t last. One of those issues — or, as likely, something entirely new — will rear its head soon enough and give markets something big to worry about. Indeed, the deadly Wuhan coronavirus, which has killed six and infected hundreds in Asia, already seems to be unsettling markets this morning.

But, that aside, investors are for now free to focus on the American and global economies. Whether or not that helps or hinders mortgage rates remains to be seen.

Economic reports this week

Last week had some blockbuster economic reports. Not so, this week. It’s deathly quiet.

It’s rare for any reports on this week’s calendar to trouble markets much. Though, given there may be little else on (a temptation of fate, if there ever was one), it’s possible any might have a limited impact.

Because any economic report can move markets, providing it contains news that’s shockingly good or devastatingly bad — providing that news is unexpected.

Forecasts matter

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

MarketWatch is late posting its forecasts this week. We’ll update the “to be adviseds” (TBAs) below tomorrow, if possible. This week’s calendar for economic reports comprises:

  • Monday: Nothing — Martin Luther King Jr. holiday
  • Tuesday: Nothing
  • Wednesday: December existing home sales (forecast TBA million homes sold, annualized)
  • Thursday: December leading economic indicators (forecast TBA)
  • Friday: January purchasing manager indexes (PMIs) from Markit for manufacturing sector (forecast TBA index points) and services sector (forecast TBA points). Both these are “flashes,” meaning they’re initial readings that are subject to later change

And there’s little else scheduled. Even top Federal Reserve people are unusually quiet with no speaking engagements this week.

However, we’re still in the earnings season, when publicly traded companies publish their previous quarter’s figures. And, this week, American Express, Capital One, IBM, Intel, Netflix and United Airlines are among those due to release their numbers. Given they’ve little else to look at, investors may take even more notice of these than usual.

Today’s drivers of change

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.

Real world forecasts also gloomy

Yesterday, Jan. 20, global accountancy firm PwC unveiled its 23rd annual survey, which this year polled almost 1,600 chief executive officers (CEOs) from 83 countries. A whopping 53% of respondents predicted a decline in global GDP growth in 2020. That was up from 29% in 2019 and 5% in 2018.

Who was most pessimistic? Those from North America, where 63% of CEOs expected lower global growth. And only 36% of American CEOs were positive about their own companies’ prospects for the year ahead. Again, that was many fewer than in 2019. Chair of the PwC network Bob Moritz issued a statement:

Given the lingering uncertainty over trade tensions, geopolitical issues and the lack of agreement on how to deal with climate change, the drop in confidence in economic growth is not surprising — even if the scale of the change in mood is. These challenges facing the global economy are not new — however the scale of them and the speed at which some of them are escalating is new.

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.

Those issues highlighted in the PwC survey are real. A recession still might arise. The phase-two US-China trade talks could collapse and the whole dispute escalate. Or 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 for the average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage during each quarter (Q1, Q2 …) in 2020. All were published in December 2019:

Forecaster Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Fannie Mae 3.7% 3.6% 3.6% 3.6%
Freddie Mac 3.8% 3.8% 3.8% 3.8%
MBA 3.7% 3.7% 3.7% 3.7%

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.

Trade

For now, trade may be on the back burner for markets. That’s because, on January 15, 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

Also on Jan. 15, The Washington Post quoted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Myron Brilliant:

“It’s important to recognize the importance of today’s signing,” he said. “It’s a first step. But it’s an important and necessary step toward a broader goal.”

So why did markets respond in such muted ways to the signing? And why should you still see trade disputes as a continuing factor in future mortgage rates?

Critics’ views of the phase-one trade deal

Well, some perceive the deal as weak in key areas:

  1. No independent dispute resolution — If the US believes China is reneging, it can only engage in further talks and introduce new tariffs
  2. Some doubt China’s ability to make good on its $200 billion purchasing commitment
  3. The intellectual property sections contain little that’s new — They mostly restate existing agreements
  4. There is no provision for reining in China’s system of government subsidies for industries
  5. 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 addressed in a phase-two deal. But most think that’s unlikely to materialize until after this year’s presidential election.

Pain

However, perhaps the new deal’s biggest drawback is that it leaves so many tariffs still in place. According to an analysis, published on the day of the 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. Indeed, on Jan. 17, China reported its slowest annual GDP growth in 29 years — though that was still +6.1% in 2019.

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.”

Now, the White House would undoubtedly challenge that figure, as do some more independent analyses. Some believe that American businesses are bearing much of the cost and are yet to pass that on to consumers. And prices may only rise significantly when stocks of goods that arrived before tariffs were introduced are exhausted. Many importers increased their orders earlier last year to get in ahead of tariff implementation dates.

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%. It’s how the pain is distributed that’s disputed.

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 additional tariff costs, 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. If more really are on the way, we could see a dispute with an even bigger economic power than China.

How trade disputes hurt

All this has been fueling uncertainty in markets. And that, in turn, created 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.

Impeachment

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.

And, on Jan 15, 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.

Later, 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 …

And, at least so far, the Times’s predictions seem to be holding up, in spite of some continuing dramatic scenes on Capitol Hill.

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.

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 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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.”
  3. 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

Forecasting issues

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

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.

My advice

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.

» MORE: Show Me Today’s Rates (January 21, 2020)

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.

Show Me Today’s Rates (January 21, 2020)

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.