Keeping Current Matters

National Association of Realtors

Sunday, March 28, 2010

In time for spring house-hunting, an end to Fed’s role

As spring real estate season kicks in and the tax-credit deadline for sale agreements approaches, the government is ending a program that has kept interest rates low and housing-affordability levels high for months.

On March 31, the Federal Reserve will stop buying mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, returning control of interest rates to private investors.

For months, industry observers have predicted that once government supports are removed, interest rates will rise quickly, pushing many of the first-time buyers critical to housing's recovery out of the market.

In late summer and fall 2009, lured by fixed 30-year mortgage rates under 5 percent and the first $8,000 tax credit, which expired Nov. 30, first-timers pushed sales of previously owned homes to the highest levels in at least three years, reducing record inventories and braking price declines.

That tax credit was renewed Nov. 5 and expanded to buyers who had not purchased a property in five years, although the credit for repeat buyers is $6,500.

The second credit expires April 30, is unlikely to be renewed, and remains the engine moving buyers.

"Not a single one has expressed concern about interest rates," said Cheryl Miller of Long & Foster Real Estate in Blue Bell, acknowledging that "there is, I suppose, a false sense of security regarding rates remaining low."

As the date for the Fed pullout approaches, analysts now generally agree that an immediate rate spike is no longer the likely result.

"We think there will be a significant increase in private demand [for mortgage-backed securities] to take the place of the Fed," said David Berson, chief economist at PMI Group in Walnut Creek, Calif. Not enough to offset the Fed's departure, he said, with rates possibly increasing a quarter of a percentage point, "but a significant one." columnist Holden Lewis said rates are so low now - averaging 4.87 percent for a 30-year fixed this week - that an increase "is inevitable. But maybe they'll rise gradually instead of jumping" April 1.

The Fed says it will stop buying "by" March 31 instead of "at" the end of the month, meaning that it likely has reduced its purchases and rates haven't risen, Lewis said.

Moody's chief economist Mark Zandi, based in West Chester, said rates will "drift" higher in summer and fall, with the half a percentage point the Fed's action cut working its way back in - mainly because investors believe the government would return if they got too high.

For that reason, Philadelphia mortgage broker Fred Glick said, rates won't change.

"If the old buyers don't come back, the Fed will intercede again to ensure rates during a continued slowly recovering economy will not go so high as to stymie a positive direction," Glick said.

Buyers of these securities "now see that the lenders have instituted rigorous standards to ensure that the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paper they are buying are very good loans," he said.

On the other hand, said Holland, Bucks County-based economist Joel L. Naroff, low rates are not sustainable, and "the only way to get the market to stand on its own is to get people to become realistic again about prices and rates."

Rates will likely rise, but "the level will still be historically low," Naroff said.

When rates do rise, likely by year's end, it won't be because of the Fed's action, but "natural macroeconomic forces" like a recovering economy and the high budget deficit, said Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors chief economist.

The possibility of renewed Fed intervention will likely prevent rate increases resulting from private investors demanding large risk spreads, said economist Brian Bethune of IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Mass.

As a result, Bethune and IHS economist Patrick Newport believe, the rate will be at only 5.25 percent by the fourth quarter.

Many Fed officials have emphasized that "high unemployment and tame inflation warrant a continued promise to hold rates very low for a long time," said Peter Buchsbaum, of Arlington Capital Mortgage in Horsham.

Some analysts expect the expansion to ease, "and I am sure the Fed does not want to extinguish the fragile recovery," Buchsbaum said.

Treasury bond yields "did not move much after the Fed completed its $300 billion in purchases in November," said Jerome Scarpello, of Leo Mortgage in Spring House, "meaning they were able to exit and not disrupt that market."

Rates will rise, he said, but not as high as the one percentage point others predict.

"With unemployment high and foreclosures an issue, a significant rate increase can push home prices down," Scarpello said, "and hamper the slight recovery we now have.

By Alan J. Heavens



Nancy M. Alexander
Stone Harbor and Avalon NJ Real Estate