Forecast plus what’s driving mortgage rates today
Average mortgage rates tumbled sharply on Friday. The fall wasn’t big enough to wipe out Wednesday’s ridiculous rise. But it meant they ended last week lower than the previous one.
Phew! We weren’t confident when we wrote on Friday that “we remain optimistic that we’re due a downward bounce off the ceiling.” Now, the Federal Reserve is actively buying unlimited mortgage-backed securities, which should push mortgage rates lower. But does even it have the clout to defy a heap of investors who want higher ones? Wish we knew.
|Conventional 30 yr Fixed||4.563||4.563||Unchanged|
|Conventional 15 yr Fixed||4.375||4.375||Unchanged|
|Conventional 5 yr ARM||3.5||3.5||Unchanged|
|30 year fixed FHA||3.25||4.234||-0.25%|
|15 year fixed FHA||2.75||3.694||-0.25%|
|5 year ARM FHA||3.125||3.674||Unchanged|
|30 year fixed VA||3.125||3.305||-0.13%|
|15 year fixed VA||2.75||3.076||Unchanged|
|5 year ARM VA||3.313||2.912||Unchanged|
|Your rate might be different. Click here for a personalized rate quote. See our rate assumptions here.|
We hate making predictions at the moment. There are simply too many variables, unknowns and counterintuitive outcomes. But we’ll stick our neck out and say mortgage rates today are likely to fall. A Fed announcement (see below) this morning plus the following market situations make that more likely than an increase. Just don’t expect that it will take long for another sharp rise to come along.
Market data affecting (or not) today’s mortgage rates
First thing this morning, it looked likely (but far from certain) that mortgage rates today would move lower. By approaching 10 a.m. (ET), the data, compared with roughly the same time last Friday morning, were:
- Major stock indexes were nearly 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 rose to $1,530 an ounce from $1,491. (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. But if they’re not worried now …
- Oil prices moved lower to $22.71 a barrel from $23.91 (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 tumbled to 0.73% from 1.00%. A year ago, it was at 2.42%. (Good for mortgage rates.) More than any other market, mortgage rates normally tend to follow these particular Treasury bond yields, though less so recently
- CNN Business Fear & Greed index inched lower to 8 from 9 out of a possible 100 points. A month ago, it stood at 44. (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.
It looks set to be a good day for mortgage rates. Probably. Maybe.
A few weeks ago, we were predicting that markets and mortgage rates could soon be bouncing up and down “like Tigger on E.” We should have stuck with that simile.
In a news flash earlier this morning, The Financial Times reported:
The Federal Reserve has committed to unlimited purchases of US Treasuries and agency mortgage-backed securities and set up additional lending tools to shore up struggling companies and financial markets.
Meanwhile, the US Congress continues to tinker with a $1.8 trillion stimulus package, disagreeing not on the amount but on how it’s distributed between businesses and people.
And yet none of that has stopped markets from falling again. Investors are clearly spooked.
That reference to mortgage-backed securities (see below for more on those) may be enough to drive down mortgage rates. But, amid this mayhem, nothing’s certain. Indeed, the only constant feature is uncertainty. Read:
Federal Reserve’s March 15 announcement
If the Fed’s dramatic unveiling on March 15 of a massive rate cut (to close to zero) and $700-billion stimulus package (“quantitative easing”) was intended to reassure investors, it didn’t work. After a disastrous day following the move, their mood has been changeable to the point of irrationality.
But, more importantly, what does the Fed’s move mean for mortgage rates? On its website, Mortgage News Daily has a masterly overview of what may be going on under the hood. But if you just want headline information, the following might help:
- Fed rate cuts don’t directly affect new mortgage rates. So don’t expect your lender to be offering you a lower rate as a direct result of the March 15 announcement
- The Fed’s $700-billion stimulus package (QE program) included $200 billion for buying mortgage-backed securities (MBSs). This morning, that was increased to whatever-it-takes
- This part of the QE program is designed to drive mortgage rates lower. But its effectiveness has been patchy. It’s probably been behind last week’s falls but it couldn’t prevent a huge rise last Wednesday. Maybe it will work better today in its unlimited form
- Excessive demand, mostly for refinances, was behind sharp rises in mortgage rates during the week ending March 13. Lenders struggled to cope and investors didn’t want to buy all the MBSs on offer when rates and yields were low. Higher rates may now have killed much of that demand
- Some volatility may be being caused by the Fed learning how to finesse its turning off and on of the QE faucet
But a new threat may be about to make all the above academic …
When you can’t close
Because something non-Fed-related may be about to kill that demand for mortgages and refinancings stone dead. In New York (and presumably other states soon), government recording offices have been closed.
And, without the access to title searches and deed filings those provide, purchases and refinancings will likely stall. Maybe someone will come up with a workaround. Just as legislators are currently working on a bill that will facilitate remote, electronic signing of closing documents. But, right now, it’s hard to see how people will be able to close without title searches.
On March 16, realtor.com® chief economist Danielle Hale thought lower rates were coming. “That [QE] should stabilize rates and bring them back down lower,” she said on her employer’s website. “They’ll [likely] go back to the low 3% [range]. Might we see rates below 3%? I wouldn’t rule it out.”
But how much good that will do buyers and refinancers who can’t close transactions is unclear. If you’re in the process of purchasing a home or are midway through a refinance, you might want to get your skates on.
Virus still the biggest factor for mortgage rates
The Wuhan coronavirus (Covid-19, standing for Coronavirus disease 2019) has certainly been behind the chaos seen in global markets since Feb. 20.
The virus now has a confirmed presence on five continents and in 192 countries and territories, up from 183 last Friday. Here at home, the US has 35,079 cases, up from 14,372 just 72 hours earlier. If that’s not sobering, what is?
And that American number may be much higher in reality: A shortage of kits and the cost (until now) to uninsured patients of testing mean many more cases must surely go unconfirmed than in countries without those issues. And even those nations acknowledge a huge gap between their confirmed numbers and the actual infection rates, sometimes using multipliers of 20, 25 or even more.
Twenty-five countries have confirmed infections in the thousands or tens of thousands. And, of the world’s top-10 economies, only India has fewer than 1,000 cases.
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 when trading 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 since we last published last Friday morning:
- Roughly one in five of all confirmed cases worldwide is now in New York City and its surrounding suburbs
- The US now ranks No. 3 in the world for confirmed infections, behind only China and Italy
- Nearly one in three Americans is now under some form of lockdown. That’s 96 million residents
- Ohio joined California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey and New York in implementing such lockdowns
- More states are expected to follow their lead soon
- Those measures included shuttering nonessential businesses and severely restricting residents’ movements except for limited and defined purposes
- MarketWatch’s median forecast for new claims for unemployment this week is 2.25 million — an unprecedented number
- US senators worked through the weekend (no, really) to refine a rescue plan worth between $1 trillion and $2 trillion
- However, they’re currently squabbling over how to share that money out between citizens and business
- St. Louis Fed President James Bullard reckons that “G.D.P. growth in the U.S. could drop by 50 percent in the second quarter, pushing the unemployment rate up to 30 percent. It’s currently at 3.5 percent,” according to The New York Times
And these are just a selection of the more eyebrow-raising stories to emerge over the weekend.
Last Friday’s New York Times “Deal Book” newsletter summed up how many investors and economists see the near and medium-term future:
Economists have been slashing their forecasts, and the numbers are grim, especially for the second quarter. But what real difference does it make if Goldman Sachs thinks the U.S. economy will shrink by 5% and Deutsche Bank expects a 13% fall? It’s going to be bad, and the shape of the downturn is what many are focusing on now.
Forecasts are changing so quickly that there’s little point in trying to keep up with them. Just know that many economists expect Covid-19 to bring the worst recession or depression in living memory — perhaps ever.
The dangers of global connectedness
Globalization has brought much more sophisticated and diverse supply chains. So, for example, 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 worryingly, some supply chains are so sophisticated that manufacturers may not realize the ultimate source of essential parts. On March 9, The Financial Times reported, “Many companies are unaware that they are exposed to parts shortages because of outbreak.”
With so many businesses currently shuttered, this may not make much difference for now. But, when the danger passes and countries begin to reopen businesses (as China has done), problems will remain. Those who recover first may find little demand for their goods with many of their customers still on hiatus. And reestablishing supply chains may take time and money.
Central banks face problems
Traditionally, central banks intervene during troubled times to prop up their economies. And they mostly have in response to Covid-19. But markets have often reacted badly to those interventions.
And, with much of their armory already depleted, some are wondering how much more they can do. “Whatever it takes” is a better slogan than plan.
How scary are the health implications?
Overnight figures show Covid-19 has been confirmed in 353,266 (up from 254,798 last Friday) cases around the world, and has killed 15,408 (up from last Friday’s 10,447). 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 (4.5%) 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% — about 10 times that of seasonal flu. But it’s too soon to make definitive judgments.
However, On March 11, 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. Meanwhile, California state planners last week projected a possible 56% infection rate within eight weeks, which presumably might rise close to those European estimates over a longer period.
If those worst-case 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. A recent report from Imperial College London projected a worst-case death toll of 2.2 million Americans, though additional containment measures could halve that.
Economic reports this week
There are some normally important publications on this week’s calendar of economic reports. But recently, even the most important ones have failed to cut through investors’ obsession with Covid-19.
And that’s understandable. Just how relevant is gross domestic product (GDP) in the last quarter of 2019 or personal income data for February when the entire economic landscape has been transformed since?
So expect none of this week’s reports to have much direct impact on mortgage rates.
Consumer sentiment and employment numbers could cut through
Well, maybe two will turn out to be exceptions. Friday’s consumer sentiment number shows how Americans are currently reacting to the new economic environment.
And, on Thursday, there’s another that might cause waves. We don’t usually bother mentioning new claims for unemployment assistance because they’re weekly figures. And that makes them easily dismissed by markets as volatile outliers, even on those rare occasions when they’re interesting.
But this week’s report may be mind-blowing. Because MarketWatch is forecasting it could hit 2.25 million new claims, up from 280,000 last week. That would be an off-the-charts record that brings home starkly to investors Covid-19’s economic devastation.
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.
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: February’s new home sales (forecast 750,000 new homes, annualized)
- Wednesday: February’s durable goods orders (forecast -1%) and core capital goods orders (forecast -0.5%)
- Thursday: weekly jobless claims (forecast 2.25 million; previous week’s actual 281,000). Plus GDP for the last quarter of 2019 (forecast +2.1%) and February’s advance trade in goods (forecast -$63.5 billion)
- Friday: March consumer sentiment (forecast 84.5 index points). Plus February personal income (forecast +0.4%), consumer spending (forecast +0.3%) and core inflation (forecast +0.2%).
Thursday and Friday have the potential to be important days.
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 and some previous years’ gains in most stock markets.
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.
At the risk of being accused of understatement, expect April’s survey to show much higher numbers predicting an imminent recession.
The Federal Reserve’s role
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.
But its March 3 and March 15 cuts suggest central banks may struggle 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.
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.
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 — though it’s so far unclear how long low rates will last.
However, few of them predicted that a viral pandemic 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 have recently not been tracking yields on 10-year Treasurys as closely they usually do.
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. Fannie’s and the MBA’s figures were published in March, and are thus more able to recognize the emerging effects of the coronavirus, though they may not have anticipated the speed of developments. But Freddie’s latest forecast came out in December (it’s chosen to update them quarterly) and so may be the least reliable:
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, such negative mortgage rates already exist elsewhere in the world. Denmark’s Jyske Bank was last year 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 that you lock if you’re less than 30 days from closing. But we’re looking at a personal judgment on a risk assessment here: Do the dangers outweigh the possible rewards?
Right now, we’re keeping that advice under constant review. The impacts of Covid-19 and the Fed’s quantitative easing just might drag those rates lower — possibly to new lows — sooner than currently seems likely. But, after recent dramatic rises, that’s far from certain. And, amid the current March madness, it may not happen at all.
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.
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.