Mortgage rates have been low for many years, but if things continue at their current pace, that isn’t going to last much longer. The biggest factor controlling the rates charged for standard 30-year mortgages is the price of bonds (called mortgage-backed securities) sold by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Over the past few years, these bonds have been selling with an interest rate just a little higher than U.S. treasuries. Now, with all the problems being talked about surrounding Fannie and Freddie, investors are becoming more cautious. In case you need help connecting the dots, that means investors are requiring a higher spread on these notes. The more Fannie and Freddie have to pay to secure funds, the more they are going to have to charge to their borrowers; it’s that simple. The bigger question to think about is how these higher mortgage rates will affect an already suffering real estate market.
Probably the biggest single factor behind the housing bubble was the abundant access to cheap credit. More people than ever were buying homes because more people than ever could qualify for loans. This was in part because of law borrower credit standards required by lenders, but it was also in part because of the low interest rates offered. Homebuyers tend to focus more on the monthly payment than the actual purchase price of a home. If they know they can afford $2,000 a month, then they are willing to buy a home for up to that payment, whether it costs $250,000 or $400,000. With all these new buyers entering the market, and people now able to afford more home than ever before, this scenario created the perfect atmosphere for a run-up in housing prices. Now let’s look at present circumstances.
On a historical scale interest rates are still low, but compared to the interest rates during the height of the bubble, they are substantially higher. While interest rates are low compared to historical averages, housing prices are high compared to historical averages. With mortgage rates rising, along with the credit standards of lenders, we are getting the opposite effect of what we had during the bubble run-up. This means that we are decreasing the number of people who can buy homes in addition to decreasing the amount of home for which people can qualify. Obviously this is going to negatively affect the housing market. While we certainly have seen a sharp contraction in the housing market compared to what existed during the bubble’s peak, if mortgage rates continue to rise, you can bet that the contraction will continue and become even sharper.
Keep an eye on the investor confidence in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If somehow the companies can regain this confidence, then mortgage rates could stabilize, but at this point that doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon.