A stronger than expected Employment report on March 6 pushed mortgage rates up to the highest level of 2015. Since then, however, nearly all of the news, both globally and in the US, has been favorable for mortgage rates. In Europe, the European Central Bank (ECB) began its sovereign bond purchase program on March 9. The added demand from the ECB has helped push bond yields lower around the world. In addition, Greek and eurozone officials have made little progress in agreeing to terms for the Greek aid package. This caused investors to shift to safer assets, including US mortgage-backed securities. In the US, the major economic data released since the Employment report has been weaker than expected. Retail Sales, Industrial Production, and Housing Starts all have fallen well short of the consensus. Since slower growth reduces expectations for future inflation, this economic data has been good for mortgage rates. Finally, the largest improvement in mortgage rates took place on Wednesday after the release of the Fed statement. Fed officials downgraded their outlook for the economy and inflation, causing investors to push back their expectations for the timing of federal funds rate hikes.
A couple of months ago, Fed Chief Bernanke was answering questions about the Fed's plan to sell its MBS portfolio. He stated that the Fed would eventually return its balance sheet to normal by selling the $1.25 trillion in MBS it had bought to stimulate the economy, but that it would not take place soon. While some Fed officials were pushing for a faster start date, investors believed that the MBS sales were likely to begin early in 2011. As the economic outlook has grown weaker, however, the Fed's likely plans have changed. Rather than discussing a start date for Fed tightening moves, Fed officials are now outlining options and conditions for adding further monetary stimulus. In particular, the Fed had been planning to allow the MBS in its portfolio to mature without replacing them. Due to defaults, refinancings, and maturities, some MBS "roll off" the Fed's portfolio over time. Until recently, investors expected the Fed to let its portfolio slowly shrink in this fashion, which would represent a minor amount of monetary tightening. Tuesday, though, a Wall Street Journal article suggested that Fed officials are considering whether to replace those securities to stimulate the economy. With the next Fed [...]
The economic troubles of Greece have been in the news frequently in recent weeks. Its ability to recover from significant budget deficits and to pay its debts has been questioned and the government debt of Greece has been downgraded. The economy of Greece is tiny, however. The problem is that investors are concerned that other smaller European countries will reveal similar problems. Financial institutions and other private investors have become very reluctant to buy the government debt of these countries, requiring very high yields to do so. The fear is that as the problem grows, banks will become increasingly selective about lending worldwide, as they did during the subprime mortgage crisis. The clear solution is for the Greek government to cut spending, but this takes time and is politically unpopular to accomplish, while the reduced access to credit markets has already taken place. Last week, the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed on a $146 billion economic aid package for Greece to allow enough time for the country to stabilize. Still, Greek workers responded to proposed austerity measures with strikes and protests. Financial markets in Europe continued to fall as investors were skeptical that the bailout [...]