A Tale of Two Opinions

Will interest rates rise or fall? The answer is “it depends.” It depends on whom you ask. Opinions are divided. 

 

The speculators are of one opinion. Grant’s Interest Rate Observer reports that net-short positions in 10-year U.S. Treasury note futures reached a record of more than 500,000 contracts in the first week of July. These traders are betting, with conviction, that the price of the 10-year note will fall and its yield will rise. 

 

Recent news on consumer-price Inflation appears to support the speculators’ bet. The Consumer Price Index rose 2.9% year-over-year in June. That’s the largest annual increase in six years. Meanwhile, the New York Federal Reserve’s Underlying Inflation Gauge suggests inflation runs even hotter than CPI estimates. The UIG rose 3.27% in May. The UIG is at its highest level since 2006. 

 

Consumer-price inflation influences long-term interest rates more than most influencing variables. Given the latest news on consumer-price inflation, we should expect more speculators to bet that interest rates will rise. 

 

To bet that interest rates will rise appears the smart bet these days, but is it? Some market-participants apparently see it otherwise. 

 

Interest rates on the long-end haven’t been rising. The yield on the 10-year note continues to hover around 2.85%, as it has for the past three weeks. Mortgage rates, which take their cue from the 10-year note, also continue to hover within a tight range. Mortgage New Daily reports that the note rate – the rate quote that determines the payment – has held for the past two weeks (at the national level). 

 

Perhaps the contra-rising-rate opinion is more influenced by the shape of the yield curve than consumer-price inflation. The yield curve has flattened over 2018. It continues to flatten as we write. The spread between the two-year U.S. Treasury note and 10-year U.S. Treasury note has tightened to 27 basis points. (The 10-year note yields only 27 basis points more than the two-year note.) 

 

Flattening is one thing, inversion is another. We’ve noted with great frequency in recent months the implications of an inverting yield curve. When short-term yields have risen above long-term yields, a recession has followed.

 

An inverted yield curve has correctly predicted the past seven recessions. The last two times the yield curve inverted was 2000 and 2006. A recession followed 12-to-18 months later.  

 

So we have two leading opinions balanced on the opposite end of the fulcrum. This suggests to us that market-rate volatility will remain muted. We don’t see much variability in mortgage-rate quotes for the immediate future.

 

We also don’t see a reward commensurate with the risk of floating at origination. The conservative course is likely the prudent course. After all, low variability can give way only to higher variability. 

 

Another Reason to Worry?

 

It’s always different. No two economic eras are alike. An inverted yield has accurately predicted recent recessions. It doesn’t guarantee a future recession. Unfortunately, another influencing variable appears to support the recession narrative. 

 

Data mined by Calculated Risk Blog show that private fixed investment has fallen during every recession since the 1940s. Residential fixed investment is a huge component of private fixed investment. Calculated Risk Blog’s mined data show that residential investment leads nonresidential investment. As residential fixed investment goes, so usually goes other private fixed investment.  

 

Residential fixed investment has broken away from the uptrend in private fixed investment. Though residential fixed investment has grown monthly for most of 2018, it has grown at a gradually lower rate each successive month. Its growth rate has trended down to a point where it’s not growing at all month over month. If past is prologue (and it isn’t always prologue), the trend does not bode well for private fixed investment and for the overall economy. 

 

But let’s keep our perspective, let’s not exaggerate the fear. We’re not there yet. The yield curve remains positive, as does residential fixed investment.

 

That said, the trend in residential fixed investment is yet another reason we are so down on tariffs and trade wars. Rising building costs related to tariffs on imported lumber and steel will only hinder investment-spending growth.   

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Mortgage Rates Fall, Recession Fears Rise

The trade imbroglio between the political powers that be in Washington and the political powers that be in the rest of the world continues to weigh on market sentiment. Market participants remain cautious. Heightened uncertainty has kept many of them bottled up in haven investments. 

 

U.S. Treasury securities (long-term securities in particular) remain the favored haven. Yields on the longer-end of the curve have eased. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has drifted closer to 2.8%. The yield is down 15 basis points over the past two weeks. 

 

Mortgage rates have also drifted lower, though the drift has been less pronounced than the drift on the 10-year note. The range still holds at 4.625%-to-4.75% for the prime 30-year conventional loan. Rate quotes hold near the lower end of the range these days. 

 

Given the unlikely scenario of any participants in the trade imbroglio retreating, many market participants will remain bottled up in their haven. This suggests to us that mortgage rates are unlikely to burst out of their range to move higher. Floating to save a few basis points appears a reasonable risk to accept in this market. 

 

The story is different on the short-end of the yield curve. There, yields continue to rise. 

 

This shouldn’t be unexpected. The Federal Reserve exerts most of its influence on the short-end of the yield curve when it raises its federal funds rate (the overnight lending rate among commercial banks). The prospect of additional increases in the fed funds rate has kept yields on the short-end of the curve on an upward trajectory. 

 

Yields on the short-end of the curve rising while yields on the long-end of the curve fall have induced another worry — an impending recession. Market participants are worried that the yield curve could invert. Short-term yields could rise above long-term yields. 

 

The worry isn’t unfounded. The yield curve has been a reliable recession predictor. Nine of the past 10 recessions have been preceded by an inverted yield curve. When the yield curve has inverted, the subsequent recession occurred 12-to-18 months later. 

 

The spread between the yield on the two-year U.S. Treasury note and the 10-year U.S. Treasury note is scrutinized most. The spread between the two securities has contracted to 30 basis points.  The spread was 50 basis points at the start of the year. The spread was 90 basis points a year ago. 

 

So what’s the cause?

 

Market participants will buy long-term debt if they anticipate a recession. They buy the long-term debt because they anticipate the Fed will change course: It will lower the fed funds rates to counter the recession. The price of long-term debt rises more than short-term debt when interest rates are cut. Market participants anticipate booking a capital gain.

 

That said, it’s still mostly good for now. But if the economic costs associated with the trade imbroglio accumulate, it might not be less good a year from now. 

 

 

This Trend Is No Longer Our Friend

 

We are 10 years removed from the bursting of the housing bubble. Prices have recovered, and then some. Home prices at the national level are at an all-time high. They continue to gain altitude. 

 

CoreLogic reports that prices in its home price index were up 7.1% year over year in May. The year-over-year gains have ranged between 5% and 7% each month over the past five years. That the latest price increase is at the high-end of the range this late into the recovery is somewhat extraordinary. 

 

Supply remains the issue. We have a dearth of it. Unfortunately, the dearth will continue into the foreseeable future. The soaring costs of principal building materials will hinder housing supply growth. 

 

Random-length lumber prices are up 44% from a year ago. CME futures contracts are up about 52% for the same period. Lumber prices tend to peak this time of year and then bottom in the autumn months. This time could be different. This year, lumber is saddled with a 20.8% tariff applied to imported Canadian lumber. Canada has historically been a key supplier of lumber to the U.S. housing market. 

 

Housing costs will likely rise further because of the 25% tariff applied to imported steel and the 10% tariff applied to imported aluminum. Higher costs will impede new-home construction, which is unfortunate. If housing needs anything, it needs more new-home construction. It needs slower home-price appreciation.

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Fed Raises Interest Rates: What Does it Mean to Us?

Fed Raises Interest Rates: What Does it Mean to Us?

Federal Reserve officials came and went this past week. Before they went, they raised the target range on the federal funds rate to 1.75%-to-2.00%. The range was lifted 25 basis points (a quarter of a percentage point) above the previous range.

The increase was really a non-event. Most market watchers expected the Fed to raise the range. The Fed followed the script and raised the range for the second time (in 25-basis-point increments) this year.

Another increase is all but assured. The odds are rising that two more increases could occur before the end of the year.

The federal funds rate is an overnight lending rate for commercial banks. It’s a base rate and an important interest rate. The federal funds market, to which the federal funds rate applies, works this way.

Commercial banks maintain reserves with the Federal Reserve. Commercial banks maintain reserves to meet reserve requirements set by the Fed. The reserves serve as a base for generating loans. They also serve as a means to clear financial transactions. When checks written against a bank are presented, the bank must have the money to honor the checks.

On any particular day, some banks have a surplus of reserves, others have a deficit. A market arises for banks to lend excess reserves to banks with a deficit of reserves.

Short-term lending rates respond immediately to changes in the federal funds rate. Long-term rates respond with a lag, if they respond at all. The Fed can raise the federal funds rate and short-term interest rates can rise above long-term interest rates if long-term interest rates don’t respond. In this case, the yield curve inverts, which can signal a recession.

Long-term interest rates will respond if the Fed raises the federal funds rate to hold consumer-price inflation in check. Consumer-price inflation is a key variable in long-term interest rates.

The Fed increased its inflation outlook last week. It projects consumer-price inflation to run at 2.1% annually for 2019 and 2020. Consumer-price inflation runs hotter than 2.1% now.

The May reading of the Consumer Price Index shows inflation running at a 2.8% annualized rate. It hasn’t run this hot in six years. The good news is that the credit-market response has remained muted. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note moved a couple basis points higher.

We saw a slight increase in mortgage rates this past week. Quotes at the national level on a prime 30-year conventional loan remain ensconced between 4.625% and 4.75%. Quotes have crept closer to the 4.75% boundary.

Is this as good as it gets going forward?

All signs point to a rising-interest-rate environment. Reprieves are always possible. That said, to float on the prospect of a reprieve is more of a gamble and less of an analytical decision.

Did Warren Buffett Call a Market Top in Housing?

USG Corp., the largest maker of drywall, recently announced that it will be acquired by Germany-based Knauf for $7 billion. The acquisition was given the green light by Berkshire Hathaway, which owns 28% of USG’s outstanding shares.

Berkshire Hathaway has served as Warren Buffett’s investment vehicle for the past 50 years. Warren Buffett is the most acclaimed investor in the past 50 years. Buffett buys when others are selling. He sells when others are buying. No investor has employed the strategy to greater wealth-generating success.

Buffett scooped up his USG ownership position during the financial crisis 10 years ago in a deal that valued USG at less than $1 billion. When the Knauf acquisition closes, Buffett’s USG investment will net him around $2 billion, nearly seven times his original investment.

USG has prospered with the new-home market. Drywall is an obvious input to a new home. Buffet has the knack for buying low and selling high. More than a few commentators have connected the dots. They have publicly speculated if Buffett is selling USG near a market top in housing.

We’re more sanguine on Buffett’s sale. USG has performed only “okay” since the housing recovery. It reported $2.9 billion in annual sales in 2011. It reported $3.2 billion last year. That’s only 1.7% annualized growth. Buffett simply received an offer too good to refuse on what is really a middling business.

Berkshire Hathaway still owns $23 billion worth of Wells Fargo stock. Wells Fargo is the largest mortgage originator in the country. No Wells Fargo shares have been sold.

In other words, it’s still all good with housing.

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Higher Interest Rates for Everyone

Higher Interest Rates for Everyone

Arrivederci.
That’s all we can say to the lower mortgage rates that breezed by in May. Mortgage rates moved notably higher over the past week. The prime 30-year fixed-rate conventional loan led the brigade. It reclaimed the 4.625%-to-4.75% range it had abandoned for lower terrain last month.

We explained last week why mortgage rates had moved lower. Market participants were edgy over the crisis du jour – the prospect of Italy leaving the European Union. Market participants are prone to extrapolate: If Italy leaves, then France and Germany leave and the 20-year-old Euro-integration experiment goes kaput. Call it “catastrophization” on steroids.

Market participants are also prone to “toddlerism.” The Italy “crisis” held the market’s attention for as long as a jangling set of keys holds a toddler’s attention. It didn’t hold it for long.

Italy was a deflationary event. Bond yields fell as bond prices rose. Mortgage borrowers who locked a week ago were the beneficiaries of the deflationary event.

The tide has since turned. Market participants are now fixated on a new set of jangling keys – an inflationary event.

The European Central Bank could announce that it will end quantitative easing (QE) within the next week. The European Central Bank’s version of QE involves asset purchases that inject new money into the banking system. If QE ends, money supply growth will slow. The corollary will be rising interest rates. At least that’s what market participants anticipate. Yields on sovereign debt in Germany, Spain, and Italy all rose over the past week.

And why is the European Central Bank willing to engage rising rates? Inflation.

The European Central Bank’s QE asset purchase program is scheduled to run through September, but a rise in Eurozone consumer-price inflation (CPI) to 1.9% on an annualized rate in May has helped set the stage for the great unwind. Investors sell bonds when they anticipate rising interest rates. Bond prices fall, yields rise. That’s been the case in Europe.

Our central bank, the Federal Reserve, has already engaged rising interest rates (also due to rising inflation).

Indeed, we expect the Fed to announce another increase – 25 basis points – in the federal funds rate this Wednesday. Traders in fed funds rate futures contracts are betting a 93% chance that the rate will be increased. They’re betting there is an 84% chance of at least one more fed funds rate increase before the end of the year. They’re betting there is a 40% chance of two more increases before the end of the year.

The impetus since January has been for interest rates to rise, and they have. The impetus is for interest rates to continue to rise. With the Europeans now favoring rising interest rates, the impetus has strengthened (both here and abroad) over the past week.

We expect that we’ll see 5% rate quotes on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage sooner than later. We wouldn’t be surprised to see them before the end of summer.

More Expensive, Easier to Get
Borrowers jumped on the mortgage-rate reprieve that occurred over the waning days of May. The Mortgage Bankers Association reported a 4% increase in purchase activity in its latest weekly survey. Given the recent spike in rates, a lesser number associated with purchase activity will likely be reported in the next survey.

A mortgage might be a little more expensive going forward. The good news is that mortgage availability continues to increase. CoreLogic recently surveyed the landscape and finds that it really is easier to qualify for a mortgage these days. The trend has been toward loosening underwriting standards for some time.

Fannie May began accepting mortgages with LTV ratios up 97% in 2014. Freddie Mac followed in 2015. The debt-to-income ration was raised to 50% last summer for loans Fannie Mae buys.

The FICO score has been the one constant. It has held at 755 on average for a conforming conventional mortgage. The average was 705 in 2001. It spiked higher and has held higher since the 2008-2009 recession. Given the strong outlook on jobs and economic growth, the FICO score could be the next variable Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac review for easing.

We expect the trend of easing underwriting standards to continue. We expect it to continue with the prudence shown since the recession.

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Why alternative mortgages are a smart choice.

Why alternative mortgages are a smart choice.

Traditionally, mortgages in the U.S. are financed by banks that also operate other lines of business, like offering deposit accounts and insurance products. But today, the American homebuyer is anything but traditional, and they are looking to lenders other than banks to fill the gap. Fortunately, financial institutions continue to create innovative mortgages that fit the diverse needs of borrowers, rather than forcing consumers to conform to rigid standards. The end result is more people with the financing to afford the home they need, rather than being shut out of homeownership entirely.

The trend away from banks and toward nontraditional lenders is a very recent development that is reshaping the financial landscape in the U.S. This can be seen in a snapshot of the top U.S. mortgage lenders by market share in 2011 compared to 2016. In 2011, 50 percent of all home financing was underwritten by the five biggest banks in the nation. Just five years later, six of the top 10 mortgage lenders by volume were considered nonbank lenders that focus on home loans almost exclusively.

Explaining the shift in the mortgage market

Why are more homebuyers choosing alternative lenders over traditional banks? Much of the shift has to do with the increasingly strict standards that banks adhere to when vetting mortgage applications. Prospective homebuyers are now expected to have stellar credit scores, high income and significant net worth already established before being approved for a traditional loan. However, this is not the financial reality for millions of Americans. It’s also not because excluded borrowers can’t afford a home – alternative mortgages are designed for self-employed individuals whose income may be inconsistent from month to month. They often work better for families that have imperfect credit for one reason or another and just need a second chance. Ultimately, these loans are well-suited to the countless prospective homeowners who lie just outside the margins of conforming mortgage options.

Innovation in the home lending sphere has not been limited to application requirements or loan terms, either. Many alternative mortgage lenders are succeeding because they simply make the process of getting a loan easier and less stressful. Traditional banks are not known for their efficiency, and the result for mortgage applicants is a long, drawn-out process of signing paperwork and enduring waiting periods. On the other hand, new mortgage lenders have taken the market by storm purely on the basis of the superior service and support they provide. That helps explain why alternative mortgage lenders have overtaken a significant portion of the U.S. home lending market in just five years, approaching almost half of all mortgages originated by volume.

Just like the process of actually purchasing a home, you have plenty of options at your disposal when it comes to choosing a mortgage. Speak to the professionals at New Penn to learn more about how innovative lending solutions can help you afford the perfect home.

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Mortgage rates dropped, and they dropped meaningfully this past week.

Mortgage rates dropped, and they dropped meaningfully this past week.

The rate range on the prime 30-year fixed-rate conventional mortgage dropped to 4.5%-to-4.625%. It had been ensconced in a range 13-basis-points higher for the past month. Borrowers got a reprieve.

We noted last week that Italy was holding interest rates in check because of the prospect it could leave the European Union. The prospect has become more palpable in recent days. Here’s the skinny on Italy:

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, Italy’s largest party, and the far-right League party picked EU critic Paolo Savona as their economy minister. The two parties share a common platform – both are critical of Europe’s single currency, the euro. The parties had won more than half the votes in parliamentary elections this past March. The Savona pick was subsequently vetoed. A new vote is expected in late July.

So why would an Italian election influence U.S. interest rates?

U.S. investors are nervous because the prospect of Italy (Europe’s third-largest economy) leaving the EU opens uncharted territory. Could Italy be the first domino to fall? Does it instigate the disintegration of the euro and the EU? Uncertainty has been jacked higher.

When investors are nervous and uncertain, they seek a haven. U.S. Treasury securities are favored havens. Investors bid up the price of these securities. By doing so, they bid down the yield. The 10-year U.S. Treasury note influences long-term mortgage rates. As the yield on the 10-year note goes, so go mortgage rates.

The yield on the 10-year note dropped 25 basis points. That’s a big move. It’s no surprise, then, that we saw mortgage rates drop.

Investor sentiment is fickle, though: scared today, emboldened tomorrow.

The yield on the 10-year note spiked eight basis points higher (because of investor selling) on Wednesday. This suggests investors are less worried. More investors view (rightly, in our opinion) that Italy is less likely to leave the EU than initially imagined. Not surprisingly, mortgage rates moved higher.

This, too, shall pass, as all the teeth-gnashing passed after the Brexit vote (remember Brexit?). If we focus on the long game, we still find a rising-interest-rate environment. Indeed, market watchers expect the Federal Reserve to raise the federal funds rate 25 basis points at its June 13 meeting.

Therefore, we don’t expect to see much more improvement in mortgage rates. Then again, we don’t expect them to surge immediately higher, either. It’s worth noting that the second estimate on gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the first quarter came in a little light. GDP growth was only 2.2% when annualized. It was 2.9% in the fourth-quarter of 2017.

The new lower range on mortgage rates could hold for a while longer. But why chance it? For anyone within 30 days of closing, locking would hardly be imprudent.

Home Sales Come in Cool; Home Prices Come in Hot
The latest news on home sales was nothing to write home about. Sales of both new- and existing-homes failed to meet consensus estimates in April. The reasons differ somewhat.

New-home sales failed to meet expectations because of lower builder activity. Builders are challenged by rising land, labor, and material costs. Somewhat paradoxically, supply is up. There are 300,000 new homes on the market, the highest in nine years.

Existing-home sales remain subdued for the usual reason – low inventory (particularly in the lower-priced niches). Inventory decreased 6.3% year over year in April compared to a year ago. Existing home sales are down 1.4% year over year.

Relentless price appreciation hurts both new- and existing-home sales. The Case-Shiller Home Price Index actually showed price appreciation accelerating in March. (That said, the data are skewed by a few hot markets in Northern California and the Northwest.)

We don’t expect sales growth to gain traction in the near future. Purchase mortgage activity has eased. The MBA reports that applications were down 2% week over week for the latest reported week. The latest decrease drops the year-over-year gain to 2%.

But let’s keep things in perspective: Housing and purchase mortgage activity remain elevated year over year. They’re a lot more elevated than five years ago. Still, we don’t expect to see notable gains over the next couple months.

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Mortgage rates took a breather this past week. Instead of ascending, as they have for most of 2018, they eased back a few basis points.

Mortgage rates took a breather this past week. Instead of ascending, as they have for most of 2018, they eased back a few basis points.

The range still holds, though. Quotes on prime 30-year fixed-rate conventional mortgages remain within the 4.75%-to 4.875% range at the national level. Quotes have been more “4.75%-ish” as opposed to “4.875%-ish” in recent days.

Rate quotes on the prime 30-year loan have eased because the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note has eased. The yield spiked to 3.11%, but then retreated. The yield on the 10-year note hovers around 3%. We often note that as the yield on the 10-year note goes, so go rate quotes for long-term mortgages. Such has been the case once again.

The reprieve could prove temporary.

Federal Reserve officials hinted that a bit more inflation is forthcoming. They said as much in their last meeting. The minutes of the meeting reveal that “a temporary period of inflation modestly above 2% would be consistent with the Committee’s symmetric inflation objective and could be helpful in anchoring longer-run inflation expectations at a level consistent with that objective.”

We could debate the meaning of temporary and modestly. A year is temporary to a Galapagos tortoise; a second is temporary to a fruit fly. It’s all perspective based on experience and anticipation. The same goes for modestly. We’re sure Queen Elizabeth and Miley Cyrus offer differing perspectives on the word.

That said, we interpret the Fed’s statement to mean that we should expect more consumer-price inflation than we’ve seen in the past 10 years. Given the direction of energy and food prices, to argue to the contrary would be difficult. (BTW, energy and food prices are excluded from the “core” calculation of the Consumer Price Index.)

Consumer-price inflation influences interest rates. It’s most influential on long-term interest rates. You don’t get much longer than a 30-year mortgage. If we have modestly more inflation, we should have modestly higher mortgage rates. If the inflation is temporary, the modestly higher mortgage rates should be temporary.

For the present, we appear to have enough uncertainty to hold mortgage rates at the lower end of the current range.

Market participants have become edgier on the prospect of Italy leaving the European Union. The country is close to confirming a government that would like to break away.

Farther east, tensions are rising between Greece and Turkey. Turkish military jets have continually violated Greek air space over the past three months. Both countries are also fiscal basket cases. The easiest political solution is to divert everyone’s attention with an international conflagration.

We expect the lower rate quotes that have materialized over the past week to hold for a bit longer. We offer a caveat: We can’t offer a firm definition for a bit. We can’t say when modestly more inflation will hit.

As for the Supply Side of the Equation…

The demand side is the primary focus when talk turns to interest rates and housing. This doesn’t mean the supply side is immune to interest-rate movements.

While some industries are impervious to interest-rate movements, others appear vulnerable. Home builders fall into the latter category. Rising interest rates can crimp demand. They can also raise financing costs. Home builders tend to rely on debt financing more than others.

This is indeed the perception. Since the Fed began tightening the money supply, the worst performing S&P 500 sector has been real estate. Since January, the S&P Supercomposite Home Builder Index has flirted with bear-market territory.

The good news is that rising interest rates might take less of a financial toll than many analysts anticipate. Toll Brothers made money in the first quarter, though less than analysts had expected. CEO Douglas Yearley Jr. dismissed the role of rising interest rates, on both the supply and demand sides, telling analysts, “They [rising interest rate] have not impacted our business.” He went on to say, “So right now we’re very comfortable with our business and [see] no issues out there.” (Yearley Jr. cited soaring lumber prices for the earnings miss.)

Toll Brothers is a high-end builder, but we expect other builders to continue to hold their water, as well. Perspective is in order: Interest rates are rising, to be sure, but they’re still low compared to historical interest rates over the past 40 years.

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