Mortgage rates: how low can they go?

Remember the forecasts of 5% mortgages? 6% mortgages?

Well here we are in January 2015 and the 30 year mortgage rate is well below 4%. In fact I was in a Bank of America branch this week and saw a sign for 30 year mortgages at 3.5% (with points), while the national average reported by Freddie Mac on Thursday was 3.66%.

The benchmark for the 30 year mortgage is the 10 year US Treasury yield. What does that mean? In general, banks sell the mortgages they issue to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac who in turn package them into pools and sell them to investors. Because mortgages have higher risks than US Treasuries, investors demand a higher yield than they would accept from Treasuries. The difference in yield between mortgage securities and Treasuries is called the spread.

This chart shows the spread from 2005 to 2014. I have summarized the high and low spread for each year in the table below the chart. For most of the period the spread was between 1.50% and 2.00%. It was over 2.00% throughout the crisis year of 2008 and did not drop below 2.00% until April 2009, but has been below 2.00% almost the entire period since then. What does this mean for mortgage rates?

Sources: US Treasury, Freddie Mac

Sources: US Treasury, Freddie Mac

Source: US Treasury, Freddie Mac

Source: US Treasury, Freddie Mac

The 10Y Treasury yield on Friday was 1.84%, so adding a spread of 1.50 – 2.00% would produce a 30 year FRM of 3.34 – 3.84%. And we are at 3.66%.

Where does the 10 Y Treasury yield go from here?
I think every expert forecaster has been wrong on US interest rates. The assumption was that once the Federal Reserve stopped buying mortgage backed securities and Treasuries (Quantitative Easing), interest rates throughout the economy would rise, driven by a strengthening economy and hence the demand for loans to finance business and mortgages. What has got in the way of that forecast, in simple terms, has been: geopolitical risk (Crimea, Ukraine, terrorism) which always leads to a flight to safe investments, and US Treasuries are regarded as the safest investment available worldwide; and grave concerns about deflation in many parts of the world, but especially in Europe, where a huge expansion of QE is expected to be announced next week.

The US is growing economically quite strongly and has stopped its QE program, while Europe is stagnating and about to ramp up its QE program. One of the consequences of this divergence has been a stronger US dollar which is one of the factors behind the collapse in commodity prices.

And on top of this, which in itself fuels the demand for US Treasuries as a safe haven in a strong currency, the yield on US Treasuries is higher than that available in many other countries.

Source: Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

As I have said many times predicting the future is very difficult! Very few countries in Europe have even started on the structural changes necessary to get their economies moving, and many commentators fear that QE is seen as a free lunch, when the only thing that is certain is that it will lead to even greater debt in already over indebted countries. No wonder the US is seen as a safe haven!

It does seem that the biggest concern worldwide is avoiding deflation and it is hard to see how interest rates can rise against that background. In the beginning of 2015, buyers of homes in the US have been given an unexpected opportunity to finance their purchases at interest rates close to the lowest ever seen. Could mortgage rates go even lower in the coming weeks? Certainly, but with the time lag involved when buying a home, trying to time interest rates, like trying to time the stock market, is unlikely to be a successful strategy. Rates are very low: take advantage of them!

If you – or somebody you know – are considering buying or selling a home and have questions about the market and/or current home prices, feel free to contact me on 617.834.8205 or

Andrew Oliver is a Realtor with Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty

Sotheby’s International Realty® is a registered trademark licensed to Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates LLC. Each Office Is Independently Owned and Operated

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