A funny thing happened in economic news this week:
- The overall growth outlook remained bleak, as retailers reported weak holiday sales and overall unemployment continued to move higher
- As one might expect on news of economic weakness, 30-year mortgage rates fell yet again
- Even so, there were signs in the Treasury and oil markets that continued low rates were no sure thing
Since low interest rates generally go hand-in-hand with a weak economy, why were Treasury yields moving higher, and what might this mean for mortgage rates?
Over the last third of December, 2008, 10-year U.S. Treasury bond yields hovered at around the 2.10% mark. Historically, this represents an extraordinarily low level, but that wasn’t a surprise considering the economic environment. In part, interest rates represent the price of capital, and with spending slow, there was little demand for capital. As with most things, if you take away the demand, the price will fall — in this case drastically. Back in July of 2008, those same Treasury yields were above 4%, so they fell roughly in half in less than six months.
Treasury yields are also very sensitive to inflation. The higher the expected rate of inflation, the higher interest rates have to be to compensate for the loss of purchasing power this inflation would represent. With the historic collapse in oil prices over the second half of 2008, along with falling demand for a wide range of goods and services as the recession took hold, inflation had the wind knocked out of it. In fact, inflation figures moved into negative territory during the second half of 2008. This sudden disappearance of an inflation threat is also consistent with the low level of Treasury yields.
However, at the end of December and into early January, Treasury yields suddenly rose by forty basis points (0.40%) in just five trading days. Why? One clue may be indications that the price of oil has just about hit bottom. Looking at oil futures, the consensus is for a rebound to around $58 per barrel by the end of 2009. That may not seem outlandish given where oil has been over the past year. However, it does represent a 40% increase over current levels — enough to put a little upward pressure on inflation, and by extension, on Treasury yields.
Treasury Yields and Mortgage Rates
While Treasury yields and mortgage rates don’t move in lockstep, they are driven by many of the same things and so they generally move in the same direction most of the time. Certainly, mortgage rates are more closely related to Treasury yields than they are to Fed fund rates. So, even though 30-year mortgage rates fell for the tenth consecutive week to reach a new low of 5.01%, the bump up in Treasury yields should be cause for concern. If nothing else, it is a reminder that financial markets do not move in a straight line indefinitely.
These market undercurrents are a call to action for potential home buyers. If a buyer has good credit and a steady job, then there should be no delay in shopping for a mortgage. Mortgage rates have never been lower, and they are not likely to stay that way forever.