The Federal Reserve’s oft-forgotten policy of buying mortgage-backed securities helped keep mortgage rates low over the last several years.
The monthly housing market reports I publish each month became bullish in late 2011 due to the relative undervaluation of properties at the time. I was still cautious due to weak demand, excessive shadow inventory, the uncertainty of the duration of the interest rate stimulus, and an overall skepticism of the lending cartel’s ability to manage their liquidations.
In 2012, the lending cartel managed to completely shut off the flow of foreclosures on the market, and with ever-declining interest rates, a small uptick in demand coupled with a dramatic reduction in supply caused the housing market to bottom.
Even with the bottom in the rear-view mirror, I remained skeptical of the so-called housing recovery because the market headwinds remained, and the low-interest rate stimulus could change at any moment. Without the stimulus, the housing market would again turn down.
It wasn’t until Ben Bernanke, chairman of the federal reserve, took out his housing bazooka and fired it in September 2012 that I became convinced the bottom was really in for housing. Back in September, Bernanke pledged to buy $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities each month for as long as it takes for housing to fully recover. With an unlimited pledge to provide stimulus, any concerns about a decline in prices was washed away.
In addtion to buying new securities, the federal reserve also embarked on a policy of reinvesting principal payments from agency debt and mortgage-backed securities back into mortgages — a policy they continue to this day.
by Liz McCormick and Matt Scully, February 5, 2017
Almost a decade after it all began, the Federal Reserve is finally talking about unwinding its grand experiment in monetary policy.
And when it happens, the knock-on effects in the bond market could pose a threat to the U.S. housing recovery.
Just how big is hard to quantify. But over the past month, a number of Fed officials have openly discussed the need for the central bank to reduce its bond holdings, which it amassed as part of its unprecedented quantitative easing during and after the financial crisis. The talk has prompted some on Wall Street to suggest the Fed will start its drawdown as soon as this year, which has refocused attention on its $1.75 trillion stash of mortgage-backed securities.
While the Fed also owns Treasuries as part of its $4.45 trillion of assets, its MBS holdings have long been a contentious issue, with some lawmakers criticizing the investments as beyond what’s needed to achieve the central bank’s mandate. Yet because the Fed is now the biggest source of demand for U.S. government-backed mortgage debt and owns a third of the market, any move is likely to boost costs for home buyers. …
In the past year alone, the Fed bought $387 billion of mortgage bonds just to maintain its holdings. Getting out of the bond-buying business as the economy strengthens could help lift 30-year mortgage rates past 6 percent within three years, according to Moody’s Analytics Inc.
It’s difficult to imagine that losing a buyer of that magnitude wouldn’t cause prices to fall, thereby raising yields and mortgage interest rates.
The surge in mortgage rates is already putting a dent in housing demand. Sales of previously owned homes declined more than forecast in December, …, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.
People are starting to ask the question, “Gee, did I miss my opportunity here to get a low-rate mortgage?” …
While this may close the door on the opportunity to get a low rate, it opens the door on the opportunity to get a low price.
People can only afford what they can afford. If their payment stretches to finance huge sums like they do today, then prices get bid up to that equilibrium price level. If their payment finances a smaller sum, like they will if mortgage rates rise, then prices will need to “adjust” downward to this new equilibrium price level.
I wouldn’t count on a big drop. Prices are sticky on the way down, particularly without a flood of foreclosures to push them down. Today’s owners with low-rate mortgages won’t sell unless they really need to, and lenders would rather can-kick than cause another foreclosure crisis, so any downward movement would be slow.
As prices creep downward, rents and incomes will rise offsetting some of the pain, and those buyers that are active will substitute downward in quality to something they can afford. It’s a prescription for low sales volumes and unhappy buyers and sellers. The buyers pay too much, and the sellers get too little.
Nevertheless, the consequences for the U.S. housing market can’t be ignored.
The “Fed has already hiked twice and the market is expecting” more, said Munish Gupta, a manager at Nara Capital, a new hedge fund being started by star mortgage trader Charles Smart. “Tapering is the next logical step.”
As the federal reserve tapers its purchases of mortgage bonds, it opens up this market to private investment. Perhaps money will flow out of 10-year treasuries into mortgage-backed securities for a little more yield. It’s also possible that Congress will reform mortgage finance and remove the government guarantee from these securities, making them less desirable.
It’s entirely possible that the yield on the 10-year treasury will drop this year. Higher short term rates and a strengthening economy means the US dollar should appreciate relative to other currencies, attracting foreign capital. Once converted to US dollars, that capital must find someplace to invest, and US Treasuries are the safest investment providing some yield. If a great deal of foreign capital enters the country and buys treasuries, yields will drop, and mortgage rates may drop with them. Rising mortgage rates are not a certainty.
For now, the federal reserve will keep buying mortgage-backed securities, but the messy taper is on the horizon. Apparently, when it comes to boosting housing, Yellen plans to stay the course.