Inflation, the Fed and mortgage ratesMortgagePress.comHSH's 30-year Fixed-Rate Mortgage Indicator, hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages Rates for the most popular kinds of mortgages rose a little this week, as HSH's 30-year Fixed-Rate Mortgage Indicator (FRMI) increased by six basis points (.06 percent) to close the survey week at an average 6.60 percent. The overall average for 5/1 hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) ended HSH's national survey at an average 6.35 percent, an increase of 13 basis points. HSH's FRMI captures 30-year mortgages of all sizes, including conforming, the new "expanded conforming" and jumbo. The FRMI has been published as a continuous series since the early 1980s. Separate statistical series for conforming and jumbo loans have long been available to HSH clients. We expect to make data available for the new 'expanded' product within the next few weeks. True conforming 30-year fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) lifted by six basis points this week, pressed higher by rising Treasury yields. Preliminary results for the "expanded conforming" FRM shed 18 basis points (0.18 percent) after Freddie Mac announced a new commitment to buy them from lenders, while "true" jumbos—still largely shunned by investors and typically priced far higher than their conforming counterparts—added only four basis points to finish Friday at 7.23 percent. A few themes emerged from this week's markets. The economic news that came out—which was, largely, not as bad as feared—prompted some investors to opine that the Fed would cut interest rates by just 25 basis points (if at all). Such talk prompted at least some investment money to shift out of ultra-secure Treasury bills and bonds in search of better returns elsewhere, boosting interest rates to varying degrees across the spectrum. The seemingly relentless surge in oil and food prices is prompting renewed concerns about a global inflation spiral. Domestically, we've been enduring a firm inflation environment, but price pressures for raw materials, gasoline and grains are adding a new level of misery to other economies, bringing further expectation of future price increases. If rising prices begin to trim economic growth both here and abroad, the corresponding fall-off in demand for certain materials may serve to temper those costs, but will do little in the case of demand outstripping the available supply of some commodities, such as rice. The Fed can do little to directly influence the price of oil or food, but if the Fed signals that it is essentially done trimming interest rates, it may regain some of the market's confidence that they'll adhere to the "price stability" portion of the "dual mandate" to which the Fed is bound. The other portion of the mandate is to achieve "full employment." Hiring has been slightly underwater over the past few months, and it's likely that the April employment report won't have positive news to report either. New unemployment claims have generally been rising in recent weeks, but there was an unexpected drop in new claims during the week ending April 19, when just 342,000 new applications for assistance were filed at state windows. That was the best weekly number since early March; this is encouraging news, even though it's unlikely that claims will hold at that lower level. An improvement of sorts in March was reflected in the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank's National Activity Index (NAI). The NAI, which reflects how well the economy is performing relative to its potential for growth, improved to a less-negative -0.78 during March, rising from a -1.28 mark. If nothing else, it is an indication that although the economy is weak and well below its potential, the downturn doesn't appear to be getting much deeper at the moment. That isn't the case for consumer moods. Gasoline near or over $4 per gallon, property tax and mortgage issues, a stumbling economy, and rising prices have all but killed enthusiasm. According to the University of Michigan survey of Consumer Sentiment, moods measured by their survey are at a 26-year low reading of 62.6 in April, down about seven points from an already bleak March report. Also, the ABC News/Washington Post poll of Consumer Comfort continues to find greater discomfort, with that yardstick sporting a -40 reading during the week of April 19, the lowest figure of the current cycle. Perhaps "stimulus checks" will serve to improve moods. Released in sequence by the last two digits of a recipient's Social Security number, those payments will start to hit mailboxes shortly ... and are likely to be reinvested into the gas tank and the grocery store. One place it probably won't go is toward a downpayment on a home. Home sales fell again in a challenging March period. Existing home sales eased by two percent, landing at a 4.93 million annualized rate of sale. With demand slowing, the stock of available housing inventory returned to 9.9 months' worth of supply. The homes that did sell, however, did so at an improved price, which nudged 0.9 percent higher to $206,000. New home sales fared worse. The near negative nine percent decline was way softer than expected, with new homes presently moving at a 526,000 annualized sales pace. Prices slipped by 3.6 percent during March as inventory available ballooned to 11 months, the highest number in the downturn. At some point, probably not that far in the future, the housing market will reach a point where even the low levels of demand will start to overtake the available inventory. Reports covering manufacturing have been uneven, and that's not likely to change just yet. Orders for durable goods declined by 0.3 percent in March, somewhat below forecasts. Despite the decline, some better news lurked below the headline, as the sub-index covering business spending rebounded from negative two percent to just flat zero. If recent patterns persist, we could see a positive number in the next month or two. Regional Fed surveys of factory health found a decline-to-zero activity in the Richmond Federal Reserve district, but a good rebound from negative five to +12 was observed in the Kansas City area. It was the first positive number there in the past three months. As noted above, the Federal Reserve Policy-Setting Committee meets for a two-day meeting shortly. We're expecting to see a quarter-percentage point cut in the Fed Funds and Discount Rates, and predict that the release announcing the change will note that financial markets have found at least some semblance of stability for the moment, as well as that inflation pressures are now the dominant concern of the Fed—a signal that, barring any new emergency, the rate-cutting cycle is done. At this point, with the "real" cost of money at or below zero, there's little more to be gained by cutting rates anyway, and little inflationary damage that the another quarter-percent of "insurance" might cause. This is a very dicey time for the economy. Growth remains subpar, inflation seems to be resurging, and food and energy costs will sap a fair portion of the hoped-for stimulus. If the economy doesn't respond favorably to the boosts which have already been put in place, tax policy may need to change to put a few more dollars into consumer pockets on a more permanent basis (read "tax cuts"). In the present political environment, however, that seems unlikely, so we may just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best. The Fed move will only affect the Prime Rate, which in turn will hit Home Equity Line of Credit Rates. Some of those are starting to bounce along interest rate "floors" already. Mortgage rates will probably nudge higher; presently, the only thing which would cause a meaningful downturn in rates would be a sudden spate of investor demand (unlikely as lenders and investors continue to lick their wounds and build loan-loss reserves) or a huge new appetite for "investments" by Fannie Mae or Freddie, both of which have the cash to buy loans and a place to park them. For more information, visit www.hsh.com.
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