This is an interesting time in financial markets, and we want to help you understand the many elements currently in play. Investors face a lot of significant questions on a wide range of issues right now, and it's no surprise that they have responded to the increased uncertainty by reducing the level of risk in their portfolios. As usual, their primary method to accomplish this has been to shift assets from stocks to bonds, including MBS. The trade tensions between the U.S. and China remain one of the largest sources of concern for investors. Tariffs and other barriers to trade slow global economic activity, which reduces the outlook for future inflation and is favorable for mortgage rates. The outlook for global economic growth is another big question mark for investors. Around the world, the manufacturing sector clearly has taken a hit from the trade issues, and business investment has fallen as companies hesitate to make long-term capital commitments. On the other hand, U.S. consumer spending has remained quite healthy in recent months, and Alibaba ("the Amazon of China") just released strong earnings results. In addition, several geopolitical events around the world are concerning. Massive protests have been taking place in [...]
One source of volatility for MBS prices is uncertainty about the outcome of upcoming elections in several European countries. Investors are most focused on the presidential election in France which will take place on April 23. Polls show a close race between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Le Pen's campaign has been centered on plans for France to leave the European Union (EU) and to stop using the euro currency, while the centrist Macron has run on a more traditional platform. It is not clear what would happen to the EU if France decided to exit. As a result, investors have reacted by shifting to safer assets after news which favors a Le Pen victory and doing the opposite after positive news for Macron. Since U.S. MBS are viewed as relatively safer assets, they have been affected by the shifts in sentiment, causing volatility.
In her semi-annual testimony to Congress, Fed Chair Yellen said that the Fed expects that economic progress will call for "further gradual increases" in the federal funds rate. She also said that it would be "unwise" to wait too long to hike rates. Yellen later added that the Fed will consider in coming months when to begin to reduce the Fed's holdings of MBS. Of note, she said that the Fed will not sell MBS to shrink the holdings, but rather will stop replacing principal reductions. The expected pace of tightening by the Fed increased a little after her testimony, causing MBS to decline.
As widely expected, the Fed raised the federal funds rate by 25 basis points. Unfortunately for MBS, Fed officials also raised their outlook for the pace of future rate hikes. They now forecast three rate hikes in 2017, one more than previously projected. The faster pace was viewed as negative for mortgage rates. But why? The purpose for raising the federal funds rate is to keep inflation from rising above the Fed's target of 2%. This should be a good thing for mortgage rates. Part of the reason for the adverse reaction stems from a more direct effect the Fed has on mortgage rates. The Fed owns over $1.7 trillion of the agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that it purchased during its quantitative easing (QE) days. The Fed keeps the balance of MBS around that level by buying new MBS to replace that which pays off. The Fed is currently the buyer of approximately 25% of all newly issued MBS. This added demand from the Fed drives MBS prices higher and mortgage rates lower. The Fed says that it will not allow its holdings of MBS to decline until "normalization of the level of the federal funds rate is well under [...]