When it comes to mortgage rates, all else is never equal. Three factors will complicate or even offset the impact of the recent rise in mortgage rates, even if rates continue to climb: the strengthening economy, expanding inventory, and looser mortgage credit:
A post-recession economic recovery tends to push interest rates higher as demand for credit increases and if investors start to worry more about inflation. Furthermore, the Fed has said it will taper its bond-buying only if the economy seems strong enough to weather it. Both through market forces and the actions of the Fed, rising rates should be accompanied by a strengthening economy.
Inventory has been expanding for the past six months on a seasonally adjusted basis. More for-sale inventory on the market slows price gains: in fact, other price indexes have been slowing down before the May rate spike could have affected prices, pointing to expanding inventory as a likelier explanation for the price slowdown. While rising rates and expanding inventory should both slow down prices, these same two factors should pull sales in opposite directions. All else equal, rising rates should slow sales, but expanding inventory should boost sales – since more homes can be sold if there are more homes for sale. Therefore, even though this month’s sales data should be slowed by sales, it could be lifted by rising inventory.
Mortgage credit, though still tight, shows signs of loosening, for two reasons. First, as they face diminishing demand for refinancing, banks might look to expand their home-purchase lending instead. Furthermore, new mortgage rules coming into effect next year will give banks more clarity about which loans are considered risky, hopefully making banks more willing to write mortgages deemed to be safer. The negative impact of rising rates, therefore, could be partially offset by looser mortgage credit.
All told, the housing market and the economy have a lot of moving parts. Aside from the sharp and immediate effect that rising mortgage rates have on refinancing, the impact of rising rates on the housing recovery is hard to pinpoint. This month’s sales reports, covering new and existing home sales from August, should show some decline from the May rate spike, but mortgage rates are just one of many factors affecting the housing recovery.
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