How Are Mortgage Rates Determined?

Many people believe that interest rates are simply set by lenders, but the reality is that mortgage rates are largely determined by what is known as the Secondary Market.

The secondary market is comprised of investors who buy the loans made by banks, brokers, lenders, etc. and then either hold them for their earnings, or bundle them and sell them to other investors. When the secondary market sells the bundles of mortgages, there are end investors who are willing to pay a certain price for those loans.

That market price of those Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) is what impacts mortgage rates.

Typically, investors are willing to accept a lower return on mortgage backed securities because of their relative safety compared to other investments.

This perception of safety is due to the implied government backing of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the fact that the Mortgage Backed investments are based on real estate collateral. So, if the loan defaults there is real property pledged against potential losses.

In contrast, other investments are considered more risky, specifically stocks which are based on earnings and profit vs real property.  The movement between the two investment vehicles often dictates mortgage rates.

Why Do Mortgage Rates Change?

Mortgage rates fluctuate based on the market’s perception of the economy.

Stocks are considered riskier investments, and therefore have an expected higher rate of return to compensate for that risk. When the economy is thriving, it is presumed that companies will perform better, and therefore their stock prices will move higher. When stock prices move higher – MBS prices generally move lower.  Mortgage Backed Securities, however, thrive when the economy is perceived as not doing well. When investors forecast a faltering economy, they worry that the return on stocks will be lower, so they frequently engage in a ‘flight to safety’ and buy more secure investments such as Mortgage Backed Securities.  Mortgage rates are actually based on the yield of those Mortgage Backed Securities.

Bonds are sold at a particular price based on their value in relation to other available investments.  When a bond is sold it yields a certain return based on that original purchase price.  As the prices of the MBS increases because investors seek their safety, the yield decreases. Conversely, when investors seek the higher returns of stocks and the MBS are purchased in lesser quantities the price goes down.  The lower price results in a higher yield, and this yield is what determines mortgage rates.

How Would I Know if Rates are Expected to Go Up or Down?

UP:

When the economy is growing or is expected to grow, stocks will likely become the more favored investment.

When investors buy more stocks, they purchase fewer MBS, which drives the price down.

When the price of the MBS is lower, the yield increases.

Since mortgage rates are based on the yield of the 30 Year MBS, you would expect rates to increase in this environment.

DOWN:

When the economy appears to be slowing or is doing poorly, investors typically move their money out of the stock market and into the safety of the MBS.

This drives the price of these investments higher, which results in a lower yield.

Since mortgage rates are based on the yield of the 30 Year MBS, you would expect rates to decrease in this environment.

Since these market variables and expectations change multiple times as economic reports are released throughout the course of a week, it is not uncommon to see mortgage rates change several times a day.

Understanding how rates move is not necessarily as important as having a loan officer that is equipped with the technology and professional services to track and stay alerted at the precise moment rates make a move for the better or worse.

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How Do Mortgage Rates Move When The Fed Lowers Rates?

Lower mortgage rates is a common misconception that is perpetuated by the mainstream media when the Fed makes an announcement of lowering rates.

However, when the Fed cuts interest rates, mortgage rates can actually increase.

Fed 101:

According to Wikipedia:

The Federal Reserve System (also known as the Federal Reserve, and informally as the Fed) is the central banking system of the United States.

This system was conceived by several of the world’s leading bankers in 1910 and enacted in 1913, with the passing of the Federal Reserve Act. The passing of the Federal Reserve Act was largely a response to prior financial panics and bank runs, the most severe of which being the Panic of 1907.

Over time, the roles and responsibilities of the Federal Reserve System have expanded and its structure has evolved. Events such as the Great Depression were some of the major factors leading to changes in the system.

Its duties today, according to official Federal Reserve documentation, fall into four general areas:

  1. Conducting the nation’s monetary policy by influencing monetary and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates.
  2. Supervising and regulating banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation’s banking and financial system, and protect the credit rights of consumers.
  3. Maintaining stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets.

The Federal Reserve controls two key interest rates in this country:

1) The Federal Funds Rate

2) The Discount Rate

These are overnight lending rates used by banks when they lend money to each other.

When these rates are low, money is cheaper for banks to borrow, and that “cheap” money spreads throughout the economy.

The aim of the Federal Reserve in its interest rate policy is to either speed up or slow down the economy. In times of economic downturn, the Federal Reserve will cut rates to help create a boost. Conversely, in times of heavy inflation, the Fed will raise rates to help slow down the economy.

That’s it; speed up or slow down….no tricks.

When the credit crisis began to spiral in 2007, the Fed cut rates dramatically in hopes of jump-starting the economy. The Fed keeping rates near zero is an indication that the economy is moving along at a steady pace. If the economy improves to the point where inflation starts to creep up the Fed will begin hiking rates.

The Fed and Mortgage Rates:

Mortgage rates are tied to mortgage bonds, which are traded every day on the secondary market just like stocks.

Bonds are often considered a safer investment than stocks since they yield a constant rate of return.

During times of market turmoil, investors sell their stock holdings and move into bonds (called a “flight to safety” in financial jargon).

Conversely, when the economy is booming, investors move their money away from bonds and into stocks to take advantage of the upswing in the economy.

Remember, The Fed cuts interest rates to boost the economy.

When investors see this boost, they sell their bond holdings and move into stocks.

This movement causes the rates on those bonds to increase naturally as the bonds have to attract new investors with higher rates of return.

As a result, we see mortgage rates increase.

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So, the next time you hear the Fed cutting interest rates, don’t assume mortgage rates will simply follow suit. The rate cut is simply meant to boost the economy, which moves money from bonds to stocks, and causes mortgage rates to rise.

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