Why mortgage rates aren’t higher … yet

Cecala points out, that from the standpoint of the mortgage market, the Federal Reserve is still buying as big a share—and perhaps bigger—of new agency mortgage-backed securities production as it was six months ago.

That is because overall mortgage production is down. The rate jump at the start of last summer ended the refinance boom, and purchase originations are sluggish, as sales slow and all-cash buyers reign.

Total mortgage applications are down 52 percent from a year ago, according to a weekly report from the Mortgage Bankers Association. Refinance applications and purchase applications are down nearly 63 percent and over 12 percent, respectively. The average contract rate on the 30-year fixed was 4.52 percent last week, compared with 3.67 percent during the same week a year ago.

The Fed may have cut its mortgage-bond buying by $5 billion in January, but it has had no effect on rates for one simple reason.

(Read more: New home sales drop 7 percent)

“Other parties have filled the void, and then some,” said Dan Green, publisher of TheMortgageReports.com. “Mortgage bonds are rallying, and mortgage rates are dropping.”

The reason: As the stock market falls, investors head to the safety of quality assets such as bonds. Recent economic turmoil overseas has added to that movement and, consequently, to a rebound in Treasury-buying, which depresses yields. Mortgage rates generally follow the 10-year yield.

“A reduction of $10 billion or even $20 billion shouldn’t change the current situation where the Fed is buying a disproportionately high percentage of new agency MBS production,” Cecala said. “Again, the big factor is declining originations and new MBS production.”

As for any major policy changes in the mortgage market, they are unlikely at least this year.

(Read more: Real estate least sexy sector is red hot)

President Barack Obama mentioned housing just two times in his State of the Union address Tuesday. He said housing is “rebounding,” and then suggested that legislation was needed to protect taxpayers from another housing crisis. In a policy fact-sheet released during the speech, Obama reiterated his plan—first outlined last summer—to reform housing finance.

The primary reason the president is not pushing a housing agenda is that mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae are making money hand over fist—money that goes directly to the federal government because of its conservatorship.

It’s also just too big an issue to tackle with Congress facing midterm elections.

“The housing market is in the best shape of Obama’s presidency,” said Jed Kolko, chief economist at Trulia.com. “Construction and sales in 2013 were both at their highest levels since before he took office, and prices have bounced back to within range of their long-term norms.”

(Read more: All-cash offers crushing first-time buyers)

Kolko also noted that the president’s two main initiatives, mortgage refinancing and modifications, don’t work as well in a higher interest rate environment.

Article source: http://www.cnbc.com/id/101374459

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