Coronavirus and Rates


As a mortgage professional for almost two decades, I have been through many wild rides, but nothing compares to what we are experiencing right now with this coronavirus; or what I am calling our alternative universe. Just over a week ago, the fear of COVID-19 sent stocks tumbling, and mortgage rates lower – according to Mortgage News Daily, the average rate for the popular 30-year fixed mortgage fell to 3.23%, an 8-year low.

Rates had been dropping for weeks as “breaking news” seemed to ping our phones by the minute, and fear began to manifest in real-time, as we watched the stock market cradle. In times of economic uncertainty, mortgage rates are typically the beneficiary of bad news, and rates go down as dollars move from the risky stock market and into the “usually” safe haven of mortgage-backed securities (aka mortgage debt) – and rates go lower.

As news of the virus drove interest rates down, homeowners rushed to apply for mortgages not seen in over a decade. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, during the first week of March, refinancing applications reached their highest levels in over 11 years and jumped 79% week over week. We all went from being plain old busy to our hair catching on fire. That’s when the damn broke, almost at once, as Banks quickly began to increase rates to stem the demand. More factors contributed to mortgage rates spiking, and I will cover those in future blogs — no need to get too far in the weeds here.

In what seemed like a matter of hours, those attractive low-interest rates vanished in a poof of air, and rates shot up – and fast! According to Mortgage News Daily, that average rate is now over 4%, and we don’t know how high it may go.

The Fed Didn’t Drop Rates?

Most had not heard the news that rates had jumped when the Fed made a dramatic announcement that they were going to lower the Fed funds rate to almost zero. Within minutes my cell phone exploded with calls and text messages from clients “Dan, did you hear the news? The Fed is lowering rates to zero, and I want it! Unfortunately, I had to tell them it doesn’t work that way.

The Fed Funds Rate is the overnight rate at which banks borrow money from each other; it is not, however, the mortgage rate. Mortgage rates are influenced by the U.S. and global economies and the demand (or lack thereof) of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that are bought and sold on Wall Street. In short, MBS represents the prices investors are willing to pay for these low risk, low rate, fixed investments. More demand drives interest rates lower, and less demand drives them higher. 

So to be clear, the Fed can’t just announce they are lowering mortgage rates by dropping the federal funds rate. But, by making these incremental moves, they can help influence mortgage rates to drop – or in this case not to go too much higher!

What is Quantitative Easing, and why do we want it?

Now that we all know Fed rate cuts don’t always lead to lower rates, there are a few other tricks the Fed has up her sleeve to help us. One method that paid huge dividends during the crash of 2008 is Quantitative Easing (QE), which is “the introduction of new money into the money supply by a central bank. 

In laymen’s terms, if the guys on Wall Street and investors won’t purchase Mortgage bonds or treasuries, the government can step in and fill that void. Thus, keeping the demand for MBS going, which in turn keeps mortgage rates low. And if rates stay low, it will promote consumer spending (and borrowing) and keep our economy humming. The Fed’s goal to push rates down using QE may work again, as it did when they purchased billions in bonds and securities over many years following The Great Recession.

What is happening today reminds me of just how fragile and reversible progress can be. And unfortunately, as a society, we sometimes have this terrible habit of repeating mistakes we made years ago. This is why it is so essential to work with people you trust and who have the experience to guide you through the steps of homeownership and finance. I am hopeful this move by the Fed will pay dividends, just as it did before, and we can all continue to realize the dream of homeownership. Be safe, everyone. 

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