Mortgage rates ease again on economic worries

Fed officials not ruling out more easing

Mortgage rates slid this week as worries about the economy made mortgage-backed securities that fund most mortgage loans look like a safe bet to investors.

Freddie Mac’s weekly Primary Mortgage Market Survey showed rates on 15-year fixed-rate loans hitting a new all-time low, and rates for the workhorse 30-year fixed-rate mortgage just above the record low.

Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 3.88 percent with an average 0.7 point for the week ending April 12, down from 3.98 percent last week and 4.91 percent a year ago. Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages hit an all-time low in records dating to 1971 of 3.87 percent during the first three weeks of February.

For 15-year fixed-rate mortgages, rates averaged 3.11 percent with an average 0.7 point, down from 3.21 percent last week and 4.13 percent a year ago. That’s a new low in Freddie Mac records dating to 1991.

Rates on 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) loans averaged 2.85 percent with an average 0.7 point, down from 2.86 percent last week and 3.78 percent a year ago. The five-year ARM hit a low in records dating to 2005 of 2.8 percent the week of Feb. 23.

For 1-year Treasury-indexed ARMs, rates averaged 2.8 percent with an average 0.6 point, up from 2.78 percent last week but down from 3.25 percent a year ago. Rates on one-year ARMs hit an all-time low in records dating to 1984 of 2.72 percent during the week ending March 1.

Looking back a week, a separate survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association showed demand for purchase loans was down a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent during the week ending April 6 compared to a week earlier. Demand for purchase loans up 5.5 percent from the same time a year ago.

In times of economic uncertainty, increased demand for Treasury bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and similar investments pushes their prices up, and yields down.

A weaker than expected employment report for March, showing the economy added only 120,000 new jobs, along with renewed worries about the European debt crisis, had many investors dumping riskier investments and moving money into bonds this month.

Those fears have eased somewhat, in part because Federal Reserve officials have hinted they stand ready to take further action to goose the economy with a third round of quantitative easing ("QE3").

Speaking Wednesday during a conference at New York University, Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet Yellen outlined "substantial headwinds" that "continue to restrain the recovery."

One headwind comes from the housing sector, which has typically been a driver of business cycle recoveries, Yellen said.

Demand for housing is likely to pick up "only gradually given still-elevated unemployment, uncertainties over the direction of house prices, and mortgage credit availability that seems likely to remain very restricted for all but the most creditworthy buyers," Yellen said.

"When housing demand does pick up more noticeably, the huge overhang of both unoccupied dwellings and homes in the foreclosure pipeline will likely allow demand to be met for a time without a sizable expansion in homebuilding."

A second factor is that state and local governments continue to face "extremely tight budget situations," while federal stimulus-related policies are scheduled to wind down.

A third factor weighing on the outlook is the sluggish pace of economic growth abroad.

With sluggish economic growth limiting job creation and few signs of inflation on the horizon, Yellen said she considers "a highly accommodative policy stance to be appropriate in present circumstances."

Further "easing actions" could be warranted if the recovery proceeds at a slower-than-expected pace, she said, although "a significant acceleration in the pace of recovery could call for an earlier beginning to the process of policy firming" than the Federal Open Market Committee currently anticipates.

The committee, which sets targets for short-term interest rates, said after its January and March meetings that economic conditions are "likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through late 2014."


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