Mortgage rates hit a new low for the year this week as worries about the economy made relatively safe investments like Treasury notes and mortgage-backed securities look more attractive to investors.
One of those economic worries is housing -- Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen told lawmakers this week that housing activity has been "disappointing so far this year and will bear watching" -- but mortgage rates remain low by historic standards.
Battered U.S. economy image via Shutterstock.
Rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 4.21 percent with an average 0.6 point for the week ending May 8, down from 4.29 percent last week but up from 3.42 percent a year ago, according to the latest weekly survey by Freddie Mac.
Mortgage rates followed 10-year Treasury yields down "after a dismal report on real GDP growth in the first quarter," said Freddie Mac Chief Economist Frank Nothaft in a statement.
Looking back a week, a separate survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association showed demand for purchase mortgages during the week ending May 2 was up a seasonally adjusted 9 percent from the week before, to the highest level since January. Even so, applications for purchase loans were down 16 percent from a year ago.
For the first time since 2009, applications for purchase loans outnumbered requests to refinance, with the "sizable increase" in purchase applications likely reflecting the impact of lower mortgage rates as well as continued growth in the job market, MBA Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni said in a statement.
The economy added 288,000 jobs in April -- the biggest gain since January 2012 -- and the unemployment rate fell to 6.3 percent. While that's good news for the long term, the drop in unemployment raised anxiety among investors about the how quickly the Fed might tighten monetary policy.
Mortgage rates have been on the rise as the Fed tapers its purchases of mortgage-backed securities that fund most home loans. Rising rates have curbed refinancings and made homes less affordable.
Mortgage credit remains tight, and actually got a little tighter in April, according to the MBA's Mortgage Credit Availability Index.
The index, which was benchmarked to 100 in March 2012, fell from 114 in March to 113.8 in April, incidating tightened lending standards.
Fratantoni said there are "countervailing trends" in the data. While some investors have shut down or tightened criteria for some programs, credit continues to be more available to jumbo borrowers -- particularly those seeking adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) loans -- and there's been some loosening within conventional and FHA programs for conforming loans.