The Wall Street Journal
24 May 2010
Home Buyers Get Surprise Boost From Europe Crisis as Loans Drop to Below 5%
The financial turmoil in Europe is providing an unexpected windfall for American home buyers, as international money seeking a safe haven is flowing into the U.S., pushing domestic mortgage rates to the lowest levels of the year and back near 50-year lows.
The housing industry had been bracing for months for a period of rising mortgage rates, triggered by the end of the Federal Reserve’s $1.25 trillion mortgage-securities purchase program. Conventional wisdom held that mortgage rates would rise as the Fed pulled back from propping up the market.
Instead, many in the industry now say rates could drift as low as 4.5% this summer from 4.86% now, instead of rising to 6% as some economists projected, making for significantly lower payments for Americans buying homes or refinancing their mortgages.
Refinance business “exploded” last week, says Jeff Lazerson, chief executive of Mortgage Grader, a brokerage in Laguna Niguel, Calif. “It’s schizophrenic. We all had this expectation of higher interest rates and no more refinances.” He says he helped a borrower lock in a 30-year loan with a 4.25% fixed rate last week, the lowest in his 24 years in the business.
Rates on 30-year mortgages averaged 4.84% last week, according to a survey by mortgage-insurance titan Freddie Mac. Rates were quoted late Friday at 4.86%, the lowest since December 2009, according to a survey by financial publisher HSH Associates, and down from a high of 5.27% for the week ended April 9. Rates on 15-year mortgages averaged 4.24% last week—the lowest since Freddie began its survey in 1991.
Economists largely attribute the decline in mortgage rates to the European debt crisis and new concerns about the global economy, which unleashed a massive wave of cash into U.S. bonds from investors around the world.
This buying pushed down yields on Treasury bonds. Because mortgage rates are closely pegged to yields on 10-year Treasury notes, which fell to 3.2% Friday, the decline in Treasurys pulled down mortgage yields. Typically, mortgage yields remain around 1.5 percentage points above yields on 10-year Treasury notes.
Falling mortgage rates can give a powerful lift to the housing market. A general rule of thumb holds that every one percentage point decline in mortgage rates is the equivalent of roughly a 10% reduction in the home price for the buyer. So, if the current rates hold, say economists, that could help stabilize prices and allow current homeowners to sell existing homes without substantial price cuts.
It isn’t clear how much home-buying the lower rates will spur. Demand had fallen in recent weeks after buyers raced to close sales ahead of last month’s expiration of an $8,000 federal tax credit for home purchases. Applications for new-purchase loans hit a 13-year low in the week ending May 14, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Borrowers do face roadblocks. Underwriting standards are their strictest in a decade, and record numbers of borrowers are “underwater,” owing more to the bank than their homes are worth. That has excluded large swaths of borrowers from getting loans at the new lower rates.
Still, lower rates could widen the pool of people who qualify for a mortgage, while others may find they qualify for a slightly larger loan. “They can buy the place with the extra bedroom or the swimming pool,” says Jay Brinkmann, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association.
Falling rates have encouraged some Americans to consider refinancing their existing mortgages to save money. A one-percentage-point decline in mortgage rates can cut $250 off the monthly payment on a $400,000 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, giving consumers cash they can use to spend.
Richard Hunsinger plans to refinance two loans on his Potomac, Md., home into a new 15-year mortgage this week with a 4.37% rate. The 55-year-old dentist is worried that interest rates will eventually rise sharply, boosting the payment on his home-equity line of credit. His first mortgage, also a 15-year loan, currently has a fixed rate of 5.25%. And while the rate on his $240,000 home-equity loan is just 3.25%, it has risen as high as 8% in the past.
Rates “can’t stay low forever,” says Dr. Hunsinger. If they go up over the next year, “this will look like a really bright decision.”
By historical standards, rates are incredibly low. Until 2003, rates on 30-year fixed-rate loans hadn’t dipped below 5% since the 1960s. Rates fell to similar points throughout much of the past year as the government was helping to hold down costs for borrowers.
Nearly half of all borrowers with 30-year conforming fixed-rate mortgages have mortgage rates of 5.75% or higher and could reduce their rates by a full percentage point if they refinanced at current rates, according to investment bank Credit Suisse.
Many of those borrowers may have tried to refinance last year, only to find that they couldn’t qualify. When rates fell to similar lows in 2003, refinance activity hit a record $2.9 trillion, compared to $1.2 trillion last year, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication.
Now, more private investors are coming into the market for loans, offering better prices for securities containing mortgages with low rates than they were one year ago. That could lead banks and brokers to cut upfront origination fees, and borrowers who are able to refinance could find it cheaper to do so than last year.
“I’m calling people back and saying, ‘Now it’s worth it,'” says Michael Menatian, a mortgage banker in West Hartford, Conn.