The average rate of a 30-year fixed loan was anticipated to hit 5% last month. That would have been an increase of about a percentage point from a year earlier, a change that can add hundreds of dollars a month to a mortgage payment and tens of thousands of dollars over the loan’s three-decade duration. But then something unexpected happened.
Instead of continuing their steady rise, mortgage interest rates began to fall. That average hit 4.75% as of Dec. 6, down from 4.94% a month earlier, which was this year’s peak, according to Freddie Mac data. So what happened.
Well, buyers have an underperforming stock market and the worst trade deficit in a decade to thank for the temporary reprieve.
What do trade and the stock market have to do with mortgage rates?
Trying to understand why mortgage rates go up and down is complicated stuff. Most folks think that they’re tied to the Federal Reserve’s short-term interest rates, which the Fed has hiked three times so far this year. But even if it does raise rates again this month by 0.25 percentage points, as expected, it doesn’t mean that mortgage rates will jump as a result.
That’s because while mortgage rates are influenced by these short-term rates, they’re really more closely tied to the factors driving longer-term rates like the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond market. When the stock market drops or there is a trade deficit, investors get spooked. (The trade deficit is a result of more foreign imports coming in and fewer American products exported to the rest of the world.) So investors typically turn to bonds and mortgages, which are considered safer, long-term investments.
“The problem is, there’s negative headlines … around the stock market and around international trade,” says Sam Khater, chief economist of Freddie Mac. “When stock prices drop, it causes a flight to safety and Treasury bonds.”
Since mortgage rates are generally an inverse reflection of the strength of the bond market, when bonds are up, mortgage interest rates drop. Basically, when investors put more money into mortgage-backed securities, there is more money to lend to home buyers. So interest rates, which are basically the price of borrowing money, come down—and the cost savings are passed onto lenders making loans.
“Mortgage rates are decided by investors looking for a return on their money over the next 10 years,” says Hale. “If people think international trade is going to hurt the economy and U.S. company growth prospects, then they might choose to invest in something safer, like Treasury bonds, and that drives mortgage rates down.”
The lower rates could give the housing market a shot in the arm. It’s been slowing in recent months due to a triple whammy of high home prices, rising mortgage rates, and an increase in homes for sale. Lower monthly mortgage payments could bring some prospective buyers back into the market.
“In the short term, this is good for consumers,” says Khater. “Now we’re back down to the same rates of a few months ago, and there’s more inventory to purchase from.”
So will mortgage rates continue to fall?
Unfortunately for buyers, mortgage rates aren’t expected to continue falling for long.
“Trade will ultimately get worked out and the economy will continue to grow, so the doomsday scenario that people are expecting right now is unlikely to happen,” predicts Hale. This means investors won’t be as keen on bonds and mortgage-backed securities. “As the uncertainty passes, we expect mortgage rates will also turn around and begin climbing again.”
“The thing that gets lost with all the noise is the fundamental health of the economy remains sound,” he says. “And mortgage rates will typically increase when the economy is stronger.”