On the first Friday of every month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its Non-Farm Payrolls report. More commonly, it’s called the “jobs report” and the October’s data is trending with the rest of 2008.

After shedding another 240,000 jobs last month, the economy has now put 1.2 million Americans out of work this year and unemployment rates have climbed to 14-year highs.

As a strange twist, though, today’s weak jobs data may lead to a positive turn for the economy and for housing in 2009.

In the wake of the jobs report, members of Congress are already calling for both tax cuts and direct stimulus to reverse the course of the economy. Both of these actions would put money back into U.S. citizens’ household budgets, spurring consumer spending nationwide.

Because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of the economy, this would be expected to push the economy forward at a time when it natural forces are slowing it down.

In addition, markets are betting that the Federal Reserve will cut the Fed Funds Rate below its current 1.000 percent level. This, too, would spur spending because the Fed Funds Rate is directly tied to consumer credit card rates and business credit lines.

Expectations for stimulus are one reason why mortgage rates have not risen today as high as they otherwise would have if this were a “normal” market.

Mortgage rates are slightly elevated as we head into the weekend, but don’t be surprised if there’s a late-afternoon push that brings them lower. For active home buyers, this could help home affordability as we cruise towards the holiday season.

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As LIBOR settles down, ARM adjustments settle down, too

The interest rate against which adjustable-rate mortgages change is falling — evidence that the global banking system is starting to stabilize.

On any adjustable-rate mortgage, the initial “starter rate” remains fixed for some period of time, and then adjusts according to some pre-determined rules.

For a conforming mortgage, an ARM will typically adjust once per year, based on this formula:

(Adjusted Rate) = (Variable) + (Constant)

Where the variable is often assigned to 12-month LIBOR, and the constant is often fixed at 2.250 percent.

LIBOR is the equation’s variable. Therefore, it’s of paramount import to holders of ARMs. LIBOR is the rate at which banks lend money to each other. The 12-month LIBOR, therefore, is the borrowing rate for a 1-year, interbank loan.

So, to take the formula and apply to an real live mortgage, a homeowner’s adjusted mortgage rate would be equal to whatever the 12-month LIBOR is at the time of adjustment, plus another 2.250 percent.

Looking at the chart, note LIBOR spiked in September. It’s a direct correlation to the September 15 failure of Lehman Brothers. That bank shutdown started a wave of “who’s going to be next?” anxiety on Wall Street but as global governments stepped up support for banks, LIBOR predictably fell.

For homeowners with adjusting mortgages, this is terrific news.

However, mortgage markets have rallied a bit this week, created an interesting opportunity for some holders of ARMs. Depending on credit scores and the amount of home equity, mortgage rates on a new loan may be lower that the soon-to-be-adjusted mortgage rate of the old one.

In other words, getting a new loan may be smarter than letting your current mortgage change. Contact your mortgage lender to see which plan fits you best.

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75 percent of banks surveyed reported that prime mortgage guideline got tougher in Q3 and Q4 2008The Federal Reserve confirmed what most of us already knew — getting qualified for a “prime mortgage” is increasingly more difficult.

In a quarterly survey of 84 banks, 75 percent of respondent banks tightened mortgage guidelines over the last 3 months for the most qualified of home loan applicants.

“Prime” is a vague term when it comes to mortgages, but, historically, a prime borrower is one that can document:

  • A well-documented credit history
  • Very high credit scores
  • Very low debt-to-incomes

Historically, banks bent over backwards to lend money to this class of borrower. Today, they’re thinking twice.

The chart’s steep ascent reinforces that members of all tax brackets face consequences from the current credit market turmoil. And, although some corners of credit looked poised to recover — interbank lending, for one — the mortgage market is yet unaffected and should be among the last to thaw.

All prospective home buyers should prepare for the likelihood that mortgage guidelines continue to toughen before they start to ease. Mortgage applicants on the cusp of being approved today will almost certainly be turned down for a mortgage in 2009.

Owning real estate can require a tremendous amount of advance planning and, sometimes, looking at the past is the best way to prepare for what’s coming ahead.

According to the Federal Reserve’s survey, what’s coming ahead is more mortgage application scrutiny.

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No matter which candidate win the 2008 Presidential Election, mortgage rates looked poised to riseMore than a handful would-be home buyers stayed on the sidelines this year, waiting for Election Day to pass.

The prevailing thought was that once the new President-Elect was identified, credit markets will systemically unfreeze and housing markets will return to normal.

If history is a guide, this is an unlikely scenario.

Election Day doesn’t figure to alter markets any more in 2008 than it did after the four previous presidential elections.

If anything, post-Election Day market reaction has been muted:

  • 1992 : Dow closes down 0.9 percent the day after Election Day
  • 1996 : Dow closes up 1.6 percent the day after Election Day
  • 2000 : Dow closes down 0.4 percent the day after Election Day
  • 2004 : Dow closes up 1.0 percent the day after Election Day

But just because the stock market has a history of idling on the day after the election doesn’t mean that mortgage rates will rest easy this week. The likely outcome is the opposite, actually.

If investors believe the President-elect will successfully stimulate the economy, stock markets would likely rally, causing mortgage bonds to sell off and mortgage rates to rise.

Or, if investors think the winning candidate will fail to revive the economy, money would flock to government bonds as a place of safety. This dollar flow would occur at the expense of the mortgage market, causing rates to rise in this scenario, too.

Of course, it’s as difficult to predict post-Election market conditions as it is to predict the election itself but one thing is for certain — rates may rise and fall before the week is out, but credit guidelines will remain extra-tight. Getting approved for a mortgage won’t be any easier — no matter which party wins the Presidential Election.

Will the election drive the Dow?
Eamon Javers

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As global credit markets deteriorated in October, mortgage markets displayed an unnerving amount of volatility.

Last week was no different.

But, unlike in previous weeks in which rates improved on some days and worsened on others, mortgage rates were mostly higher last week, finishing the month on a surge.

The biggest reason why mortgage rates rose last week is that hedge funds and other investors are still hard-pressed for cash and are dumping their mortgage-backed bond portfolios into the market. The excess mortgage bond supply drove prices lower last week, which, in turn, caused rates to rise.

However, forced selling by hedge funds wasn’t the only force working against mortgage rate shoppers last week.

In a move meant to stimulate the economy, the Federal Reserve cut the Fed Funds Rate to 1.000 percent — the same level widely attributed to starting the global credit crisis several years ago. Low interest rates may stimulate the economy in the short-term, but long-term, they can lead to runaway inflation.

This is terrible for home buyers because inflation causes mortgage rates to rise.

Looking ahead to this week, mortgage markets have a lot of information to digest.

First, there will be four separate speeches from members of the Federal Reserve, plus one appearance by Treasury Secretary Paulson. In each speech, each mention of the word “inflation” will cause mortgage markets to flinch and rates to tick higher.

In addition, Friday is the first Friday of the month which means that the Employment Report hits the wires.

Because markets expect to see high unemployment rates, they’re also predicting a slow holiday shopping season. If the jobs data is stronger-than-expected, expect stock markets to gain and mortgage markets to lose, pushing rates higher.

And, lastly, Tuesday is Election Day. Presumably, markets already priced in the likelihood of either candidate winning the election. However, as the voter’s President-elect becomes clearer throughout the day, expect volatility in rates as traders rush to change their positions.

Mortgage markets should move lot Tuesday — we just won’t know in which direction until it happens.

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When the government nationalized mortgage lending in September, housing analysts predicted lower mortgage rates.

For a brief two-week stint, they were right — post-takeover, the 30-year, fixed rate mortgage fell below 6.000 percent nationally for the first time in 7 months.

Since then, however, mortgage markets have reversed. Rates are now at pre-takeover levels.

Now, this isn’t to say that the nationalization was a failure — far from it. The government’s takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac accomplished two very important goals:

  1. It restored failing confidence in the U.S. mortgage markets
  2. It opened legislative channels for faster, more relevant housing reform

And, long-term, most people agree, these are essential elements for a U.S. economic recovery. Over the short-term, however, the plan has not delivered the sustained low mortgage rate environment that was envisioned.

The biggest reason why rates are higher is because of Wall Street’s manic trading behavior. When the economic outlook shows hints of sun, investors sprint to risky stock markets; when it shows signs of gloom, they flee in favor of ultra-safe treasuries. The buy-sell patterns have led to some of the wildest trading days on record and it’s not what the Treasury expected.

See, when the takeover was first announced, mortgage-backed bonds were elevated to “government status”. This created new demand for mortgage bonds which helped to push down rates. But, in the weeks that followed, the world’s credit markets unraveled and traders sought the dual comfort of safety and liquidity in their portfolios.

That’s a combination that only U.S. treasuries can provide. Versus “true” government bonds, mortgage-backed securities are just quasi.

We can’t know where mortgage rates will move for certain but, for now at least, the 4 percent range some had predicted is out of reach. Until credit order is restored globally, expect volatility to continue and rates to remain up.

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The Federal Open Market Committee voted to cut the Fed Funds Rate by one-half percent today. The benchmark rate now stands at 1.000 percent.

In its press release, the Fed wasted no time addressing the key issue at-hand, stating that economic activity has “slowed markedly”, pointing to three main causes:

  1. Consumer spending is falling
  2. Business equipment spending is falling
  3. Slowing foreign economies are hurting U.S. businesses

Furthermore, the voting FOMC members are wary of an “intensification” of the current financial market turmoil.

The announcement’s 4th paragraph is noteworthy, too. It lists the plethora of growth-stimulating steps that the Fed has taken so far this year and concludes that credit conditions should improve in time. It does notes, however, that if markets don’t improve in good time, the committee will “act as needed”.

In the wake of the announcement, stock markets rallied. Investors liked what the Fed had to say and it drew funds into the stock market from all corners of Wall Street. Unfortunately for mortgage rate shoppers, one of those corners happened to be the mortgage bond market.

The exodus from bonds caused mortgage rates to rise.

It’s a common misconception that the Federal Reserve controls mortgage rates and today’s market action should help dispel that myth. As the Fed Funds Rate falls back near its 50-year low, mortgage rates are bumping up against a 3-year high.

Parsing the Fed Statement
The Wall Street Journal Online
October 29, 2008

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Markets are unsure of what the Federal Reserve will do at its October 2008 FOMC meetingThe Federal Open Market Committee adjourns from its scheduled 2-day meeting today at 2:15 P.M. ET and the markets are eagerly awaiting the central bank’s press release.

In it, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is expected to address the U.S. economy, the future of credit, and the new Fed Funds Rate.

It’s this last point to which mortgage rate shoppers should pay attention — when the Fed Funds Rate falls, mortgage rates tend to rise.

The inverse relationship between mortgage rates and the Fed Funds Rate is based on the idea that cuts to the Fed Funds Rate are designed to add gas to U.S. economic engine.

In theory, over time, Fed Funds Rate cuts work to improve Corporate America’s balance sheets, thereby rewarding shareholders. Therefore, when the Fed Funds Rate falls, or is expected to fall, investors often rush to buy stocks before their prices get bid up. Part of that process, of course, includes selling the “safe” parts of their portfolio which are usually loaded with mortgage-backed bonds.

If you were looking for a reason why mortgage rates tanked Tuesday while the Dow Jones added 11%, now you have it.

The Fed Funds Rate stands at 1.500% and markets are split about how far the FOMC will cut it this afternoon:

  • A “pause” is expected by 2 percent of traders
  • A 0.250% rate cut is expected by 5 percent of traders
  • A 0.500% rate cut is expected by 45 percent of traders
  • A 0.750% rate cut is expected by 40 percent of traders
  • A 1.000% rate cut is expected by 8 percent of traders

Without a consensus opinion among traders, no matter what the Fed does today, a lot of investors will be forced to rebalance their portfolios to account for their “bad bets”. This will add to market volatility for sure.

Mortgage rates are calm this morning. The calm likely won’t last. If you are floating your mortgage rate and want to avoid additional risk, consider locking your rate prior to the FOMC press release.

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Despite turmoil on Wall Street, the housing sector continues to deliver good news.

Last month, led by a 22 percent surge from the West Region, New Home Sales rose 2.7 percent over August.

A “new home” is a newly-built residence, never before lived in. New homes are usually built and sold by real estate development companies and their respective marketing firms.

The surge in New Home Sales volume is consistent with the other good news we’ve seen from the housing sector. It marks the 4th positive signal in the last two weeks.

  • October 8: Homes under contract to sell surge 7.4 percent
  • October 23: Foreclosed homes fall 12 percent in September
  • October 24: The supply of “used homes” falls to an 8-month low
  • October 27: The supply of new homes falls by 7 percent

However, it can’t be ignored why housing is showing a statistical improvement. The main causes are two-fold:

  1. Banks are getting better about selling foreclosed homes
  2. Builders are keen to dump their excess inventory

Both of these factors drive down home sales prices nationwide which, in turn, draws value-seeking home buyers back to the market. In addition, because the number of active sellers dwarfs the number of active buyers, today’s home seekers enjoy a tremendous amount of negotiation leverage, making real estate even more attractive.

But, as with everything in business, markets seek balance. As home supplies dwindle, buyers’ ability to negotiate sales prices and closing costs will fall. It’s Supply and Demand — as supplies drop, relative demand rises, and prices rise with it.

In every American neighborhood, homes that are priced “right” are selling quickly. And now that banks and builders have figured out the formula, more homes are going under contract than at any time since 2007.

Much of the current economic climate is being blamed on housing. If the data is accurate, though, we can infer that the climate may not last much longer.

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>Mortgage markets followed the recurring trading pattern of 2008 last week — volatility, volatility, and more volatility.

After opening with a strong performance that drove rates down, late-week fears of a global recession reversed that path. Mortgage rates ended the week unchanged.

This was an unexpected outcome for the week considering that:

  1. The dollar gained 5%, making bonds “worth more”
  2. Oil fell 11%, helping to spur consumer spending
  3. LIBOR dropped slightly, signaling a credit thaw

Each of the above factors usually helps to generate new demand for mortgage bonds, pressuring mortgage rates lower.

But, this market is anything but normal. Because of the stock market’s weak showing last week, several hedge funds were forced to liquidate their holdings and move into cash. The rampant selling dumped an excess supply of mortgage bonds onto the market, offsetting the favorable bond market conditions, and causing mortgage rates to rise sharply from Wednesday to Friday.

Unsuspecting rate shoppers found this out the hard way.

This week, mortgage markets should be similarly unpredictable — there is a bevy of economic news and government news on which markets will chew, digest, and attempt to swallow.

On the economic side, the two most influential data points are the Consumer Confidence survey, and Personal Consumption Expenditures. The former will be used to predict Holiday Season shopping — a weak reading should cause mortgage rates to rise — and the latter is the Federal Reserve’s measure of inflation.

If PCE is low, expect calls for more economic stimulus which would help mortgage rates to recede.

And, on the government side, the Federal Reserve will hold its scheduled 2-day meeting Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s widely expected that the Fed will lower the Fed Funds Rate by at least 0.250 percent, maybe more.

Often, when the Fed Funds Rate falls, mortgage rates rise in the immediate wake of the announcement. Be aware of this if you are currently floating a mortgage rate.

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