Mortgage rates today, March 12, 2020, plus lock recommendations

Peter Warden
The Mortgage Reports editor

Forecast plus what’s driving mortgage rates today

Average mortgage rates soared again yesterday, a more extreme version of our “higher” prediction. It’s highly unusual to have such sharp increases on two consecutive days. And you now have to go back to Valentine’s Day to find rates this high. But, of course, by any but the most recent standards, they remain extraordinarily low.

First thing this morning, stock markets looked set for another grim day. Yesterday, the Covid-19 coronavirus was officially designated a pandemic. And President Donald Trump announced a ban on inbound passenger flights from much of Europe. Neither of those will have pleased many investors. However, recently, mortgage rates haven’t been tracking the usual key markets. And, for now, we may continue to see them mainly determined by the factors we describe in the first three sections of “This week,” below.

Program Rate APR* Change
Conventional 30 yr Fixed 3.938 3.938 -0.37%
Conventional 15 yr Fixed 4 4 Unchanged
Conventional 5 yr ARM 3.5 3.5 Unchanged
30 year fixed FHA 4 4.99 -0.19%
15 year fixed FHA 2.75 3.694 Unchanged
5 year ARM FHA 3.875 3.97 +0.27%
30 year fixed VA 3.5 3.684 -0.13%
15 year fixed VA 3.25 3.58 +0.5%
5 year ARM VA 3.438 2.955 -0.04%
Your rate might be different. Click here for a personalized rate quote. See our rate assumptions here.

So, given that lenders are still facing demand issues, we may well see mortgage rates today rising again, in spite of most key markets acting in rate-friendly ways. However, it’s unclear how sharp that rise might be. And, as always, events may overtake that prediction.

Market data affecting (or not) today’s mortgage rates

First thing this morning, markets (or, rather, other factors) looked set to deliver mortgage rates today that are higher. By approaching 10 a.m. (ET), the data, compared with roughly the same time yesterday morning, were:

  • Major stock indexes were again plunging, with the S&P 500 and Dow Jones both down more than 7% 10 minutes after opening. (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 tumbled to $1,589 an ounce from $1,662. (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 dipped to $30.61 a barrel from $33.35 (Good for mortgage rates* because energy prices play a large role in creating inflation and also point to future economic activity.) 
  • The yield on 10-year Treasurys moved lower to 0.67% from 0.69%. A year ago, it was at 2.60%. (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 2 from 4 out of a possible 100 points. A month ago, it stood at 56. (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

*A change of a few dollars on gold prices or a few cents on oil ones is a tiny fraction of 1%. So we only count meaningful differences as good or bad for mortgage rates.

Recently, mortgage lenders have been increasing rates even on days that were disastrous for most markets. And they may do so again today.

This week

Why mortgage rates are untethered from other markets

We’re usually quietly proud of our record for predicting the day’s changes in average mortgage rates. But recently, our forecasts have been less accurate. Why’s that?

Well, we can only base our predictions on what’s happening in other markets with which mortgage rates traditionally have more or less close relationships. But those relationships have become untethered recently.

That’s not wholly surprising amid the sort of volatility we’ve been seeing recently. But it’s more than that. Yesterday and Tuesday were only the most recent examples of some key markets acting in extremely mortgage-rate-friendly ways — yet those rates still rising sharply. So what’s going on?

Lenders overwhelmed

Yesterday, the Mortgage Bankers Association announced its figures for mortgage applications during the week ending March 6. And it said applications for new loans jumped by 55.4% from one week earlier. Those for refinances increased 79%. Both were at their highest levels since April 2009

So some lenders simply lack the skilled professionals to process all the applications they’re receiving. On Monday, senior originator Ted Rood told Mortgage News Daily, ” … some lenders are not accepting new loans or locks, and lock pricing engines are crashing repeatedly due to excessive volume.”

And all lenders — even those with all-online offers and scalable IT infrastructures that can get them over that administrative hurdle — face two other problems.

Supply and demand

First, the standard mortgage lending model sees loans bundled up into bond-like financial instruments (mortgage-backed securities — MBSs) and sold on a secondary market soon after closing. It’s demand in that secondary market that actually determines mortgage rates. But investors are loath to buy them (something that pushes up rates) because they currently see MBSs as a bad bet.

That’s because the current wave of refinances means they’re getting a much lower return on MBSs acquired in recent years than normal. They don’t expect many 30-year mortgages to actually last 30 years. But they do rely on them lasting several. And those now being refinanced after just a few months or a year or two deliver lower profits than anticipated — or even losses.

And the second reason rates are untethered from other markets concerns cash flow. Lenders need to have cash reserves to fund each closing and get them through until they sell the MBS. And those finite reserves are stretched by sudden and unexpectedly high demand, while adding to them takes time. So those lenders have to manage demand for their products (mortgages) in order to match supply (money for closings and administrative capacity).

And you don’t need to have attended even Economics 101 to know that the fastest way to manage excessive demand for a product is to raise its price.

Virus still the biggest factor for mortgage rates

The Wuhan coronavirus (Covid-19, standing for Coronavirus disease 2019) was certainly behind the chaos seen in global markets since Feb. 20. Even Monday’s mayhem, which was triggered by a squabble between Russia and Saudi Arabia over oil prices, was virus-related. The low oil prices that created the row are low because of it.

The virus now has a confirmed presence on five continents and in 125 countries, up from 120 yesterday. Here at home, the US has 1,364 cases, up from 1,016 yesterday. And that American number may be much higher in reality: A shortage of kits and the cost to uninsured patients of testing means many cases must surely go unconfirmed.

China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, France, Germany, Japan (including the Diamond Princess cruise ship harbored in Yokohama, Japan) and now the United States each has confirmed infections in the thousands or tens of thousands. And 18 other countries and territories have them in the hundreds. China, Japan, Italy, France, Germany and the US comprise a majority of the world’s top-10 economies, including all the top-4. Meanwhile, South Korea occupies the No. 11 slot and Spain the No. 13 one.

While markets are made up of people who share the fear and empathy of the rest of humanity, their focus isn’t directly on Covid-19’s health implications. Their concern is the virus’s economic consequences, which are a byproduct of the medical ones.

Virus news roundup

The seriousness of the Covid-19 outbreak and its likely economic consequences can be seen in headlines and announcements over the last 24 hours:

  • The World Health Organization officially designates Covid-19 a pandemic
  • President Trump bans inbound passenger flights from most European Union member states
  • The N.B.A. suspends all this season’s events while the National Collegiate Athletic Association says all its remaining events will take place in empty arenas
  • Italy shutters all restaurants, bars, coffee shops and stores, except grocery outlets and pharmacies
  • New York postpones its St. Patrick’s day parade for the first time since 1762
  • India denies entry to all foreign tourists
  • Across Europe, many governments cancel events, close schools and impose travel bans

And these are just a selection of the more eyebrow-raising stories to emerge in the last 24 hours.

Worldwide worries

Data suggest the economic consequences of Covid-19 are likely to turn out to be severe. On Tuesday, the Italian government announced that it had implemented a strict quarantine on all 60 million of its residents. The implications of that, including its shuttering of all but essential customer-facing outlets, for Italy’s economy boggle the mind.

Meanwhile, last Friday, a poll by Reuters of economists based in China found:

The coronavirus likely halved China’s economic growth in the current quarter compared with the previous three months, more severe than thought just three weeks ago and triggering expectations for earlier interest rate cuts.

And, already, several other governments and central banks are forecasting reduced gross domestic product (GDP) growth for their economies. Indeed, last Monday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) slashed its 2020 global growth forecasts to 1.5%, almost half the 2.9% it was expecting before Covid-19 took hold. It also warned that the virus could “plunge several countries into recession this year,” according to The Guardian.

But other threats aren’t as immediately apparent. For example, very low oil prices globally are likely to place some American oil companies under severe financial strain. But some of those are highly leveraged (have borrowed less than prudently) and face collapse if prices don’t soon recover. And such extensive bankruptcies could have further consequences for those who lent to them.

The dangers of global connectedness

Globalization has brought much more sophisticated and diverse supply chains. So, for instance, if you want to build a car in America, you’ll likely rely on parts from several other nations. And that means you’ll be vulnerable to any disruption in those other countries.

As long ago as Feb. 4, Bloomberg noted:

China is the largest exporter of intermediate manufactured goods that can be resold between industries or used to produce other things, so its problems quickly reverberate through global supply chains. Indeed, global reliance on those products doubled to 20% from 2005 to 2015.

But it’s not just China. If global reliance on it for intermediate goods is 20%, the rest of the world accounts for 80%. And, as worryingly, some supply chains are so sophisticated that manufacturers may not realize the ultimate source of essential parts. Monday’s Financial Times reported, “Many companies are unaware that they are exposed to parts shortages because of outbreak.”

Central banks face problems

Traditionally, central banks intervene during troubled times to prop up their economies. And it seems certain most important ones will do so in response to Covid-19. The Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank (ECB) have signaled in recent days a willingness to act, presumably with rate cuts. And the Bank of England implemented a half-point cut yesterday.

But when the Federal Reserve did the same last Tuesday, markets responded badly to a shock cut in interest rates. They seemed to suspect that it was acting precipitously. Was it bending to political pressure from the White House or was it overreacting to stock market falls? More scarily yet, did it know things that investors didn’t?

That suggests central banks will have to tread warily when intervening. But few of them have much room to maneuver anyway. They already have exceptionally low rates (the ECB’s is currently -0.5% — yes, a negative rate) so are limited in their use of that traditional stimulus tool. And quantitative easing (sometimes compared to printing money) brings its own dangers.

Some economists have been warning for years about the dangers of keeping interest rates artificially low during times of good economic growth. They feared that would limit options when the next recession loomed. We may be about to discover whether they were right. And, if so, the extent to which their fears were justified.

Covid-19 likely to spread within US

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned on Feb. 23 that the coronavirus would probably spread within American communities. And, sure enough, it’s been proved right.

After originally playing down the virus’s threat to health, President Donald Trump on Monday acknowledged that its economic dangers were all too real. At a White House press briefing, he told reporters of plans to limit damage to the economy. And he said:

We have a very strong economy, but this blindsided the world.

Ideas currently being floated by the administration include delaying the tax payment deadline and cutting payroll taxes. 

How scary are the health implications?

Overnight figures show Covid-19 has been confirmed in 129,386 (up from 121,508 yesterday) cases around the world, and has killed 4,749 (up from yesterday’s 4,383). Yes, those figures — assuming they’re accurate — show it to be way more infectious than others, such as SARS and MERS. But they also reveal a much lower death rate (3.7%) so far among those infected than that of either SARS (nearly 10%) or MERS (35%).

And that crude death rate calculation is almost certainly too high. Some experts are predicting a final mortality rate of around 1%. But it’s too soon to make definitive judgments.

However, yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she expected 70% of all Germans to eventually be infected by Covid-19. That’s not too far off the UK government’s March 3 forecast of 80% for its population.

If those projections turn out to be roughly correct and that infection rate occurs globally, the coronavirus’s final toll could be enormous, even with a 1% mortality rate. If 75% of the world’s population (of 7.7 billion people) becomes infected and 1% of those die, that’s 58 million deaths.

More market volatility ahead?

In coming days and weeks, volatility will likely be driven by changing news cycles. But such news isn’t always reliable.

Scientists are still trying to reach a consensus over many medical aspects of the virus. And governments are increasingly trying to craft narratives that head off panic over both the health and economic consequences of the epidemic. And not all of them are scrupulous about avoiding fake news. For example, some remain suspicious of China’s and Iran’s numbers.

So markets that bend with every passing news cycle may turn out to be “lively,” to say the least. But the extent to which those movements might affect mortgage rates is unclear. Because, for now, it seems not to be the usual markets that are determining those rates.

Economic reports this week

It’s a relatively quiet week for domestic economic reports. But given that, in recent weeks, even seriously important ones have failed to cut through investors’ obsession with Covid-19, that may make little difference.

Unless the coronavirus magically disappears during the next few days, expect none of this week’s reports to make much difference to mortgage rates. The ones that more normally might have done so include Wednesday’s consumer price index (CPI) and Friday’s consumer sentiment index.

But, more normally, any economic report can move markets, as long as 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

This week’s calendar for economic reports comprises:

  • Monday: Nothing
  • Tuesday: Nothing
  • Wednesday: February consumer price index (actual +0.1%; forecast 0.0%) and core CPI* (actual +0.2%; forecast +0.2%)
  • Thursday: February producer price index (actual -0.6%; forecast -0.1%)
  • Friday: March consumer sentiment index (forecast 95.0 index points)

*Core CPI is the CPI with food and energy prices, which can be volatile, stripped out.

The chances of any of these cutting through the Covid-19 gloom seem slim.

Today’s drivers of change

What 2020 might hold

The year 2019 ended with most stock indexes at exceptional or record highs. And investors had one of the best 12 months in living memory. So will 2020 bring more of the same? Well, Covid-19 has already eaten up this year’s gains in most markets — and, for some indexes, much or all of last year’s.

In its latest poll of US-based economists, conducted March 4-6, Reuters found that many now perceived a higher risk of an imminent or near-term recession that during the same survey in February.

The economists who responded thought the chances of one occurring within a year were 30% up from 23% in February. The same numbers for those who thought one likely within the next two years were 40% and 30% respectively. 

The Federal Reserve’s role

And several financial reviews of 2019 warned that stock market rises were largely being fueled by the Federal Reserve’s actions rather than underlying economic strength, though others dispute that.

The suggestion was that some investors saw stocks as a one-way bet. If anything went wrong (virus, economic slowdown … whatever), the Fed would ride to the rescue with lower interest rates and limitless stimulus packages. Last Tuesday’s cut suggests central banks may be unable to deliver the panacea on which such faith is based. And Covid-19 might yet kill the perception they ever could.

But this theory about stock market investors banking on the Fed to rescue them would certainly explain why major indexes were regularly hitting record highs amid so-so economic data and corporate results. On Feb. 16, CNN Business quoted Bleakley Advisory Group chief investment officer Peter Boockvar:

I think the stock market is just under this belief that no matter what comes our way the Fed is going to save us. I honestly believe it’s as simplistic as that.

And, on Monday, The Financial Times warned, “The Federal Reserve faces pressure to keep cutting rates to keep asset prices high.” In any event, Fed-driven market growth this year may be more modest (if it exists at all) than in 2019.

Don’t take forecasts too seriously

Just 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

On 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. Again, that was before Covid-19 became the threat we now perceive it to be. But 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?

Around New Year, it wasn’t hard to find experts who were predicting that mortgage rates could plumb new depths in 2020. And it looks as if they were right.

However, few of them predicted that a viral epidemic would be the cause of plunging rates. So their kudos is limited.

And we’re yet to see how Covid-19 will play out. What we do know is that mortgage rates are no longer tracking yields on 10-year Treasurys as closely they usually do (see above for the probable reason). And that means the volatility in wider markets is muted for those rates.

But 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. The MBA’s figures were published in March (and are thus most able to recognize the emerging effects of the coronavirus) and Fannie’s in February. But Freddie’s latest forecast came out in December (it’s chosen to update them quarterly) and so may be the least reliable:

Forecaster Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Fannie Mae 3.5% 3.4% 3.4% 3.4%
Freddie Mac 3.8% 3.8% 3.8% 3.8%
MBA 3.4% 3.3% 3.3% 3.4%

Freddie Mac reckons that particular mortgage rate averaged 3.9% during 2019. So, if any of those 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 later this year or next, especially if the effects of Covid-19 force the Fed to make its rates negative. But we’ve a long way to go before that becomes a realistic prospect.

However, they already exist elsewhere in the world. 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.


For now, trade may be on the back burner for markets. That’s because, on January 15, President Donald Trump signed a phase-one trade agreement with China’s Vice-Premier Liu He.

Although the White House remains proud of that deal, critics are less sure. They point to weaknesses that can’t be resolved until a phase-two deal. And one of those is unlikely until 2021.

Limited economic boost

Following its January poll of economists, Reuters chose to quote Janwillem Acket, who’s chief economist at Julius Baer, as representative of wider opinions:

The recent Phase 1 deal between the U.S. and China suggests decreasing odds of an escalation to a full-blown trade war. However, the deal so far is not comprehensive enough to significantly boost economic momentum.

And, of course, the impact of Covid-19 is making trade disputes look like a sideshow. Indeed, as countries scramble to prop up global trade, they may be abandoned and become irrelevances.

Rate lock recommendation

We suggest

We suggest that you lock if you’re less than 30 days from closing. Yes, you’d have made losses if you’d taken that advice in recent weeks.

But we’re looking at a risk assessment here: Do the dangers outweigh the possible rewards? So far, this week is making our recommendation look prescient.

 Indeed, some loan officers are urging clients to lock even more aggressively than we are.

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.

Only you can decide

Of course, financially conservative borrowers might want to lock immediately, almost regardless of when they’re due to close. After all, current mortgage rates are at or near record lows 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. Make sure your lender is ready to act as soon as you push the button. And continue to watch key markets and news cycles closely. In particular, look out for stories that might affect the performance of the American economy, most especially those that concern the coronavirus. 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.

Verify your new rate (Mar 29th, 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.

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.