Ever since mortgage rates started their steep climb in early May, we've all been on high alert, watching how higher rates will affect the housing market. For a would-be buyer calculating the mortgage payment on their dream home, the effects are obvious: the increase in the 30-year fixed rate from 3.59% in early May to 4.73% at the end of August (according to the Mortgage Bankers' Association, or MBA) means a 15% increase in the monthly payment on a $200,000 mortgage. That should deter homebuyers and reduce mortgage applications, sales, and prices, right? In theory, yes, but of course the real world is much more complicated. Mortgage rates aren't rising all on their own: other housing and economic shifts are happening at the same time.
Fortunately, the recent past is a useful guide. The 30-year fixed rate jumped .47 points in May 2013 and .51 points in June 2013, comparing the levels at months' end (MBA). (Side point: the 30-year fixed reached 4.80 this morning, September 11, .22 points higher than at the end of June, which means July, August, and early September have seen much milder increases compared with the May & June spike.) But this year isn't the only time when mortgage rates have jumped up: they also climbed at least .4 points in seven other months since 1999. With some simple time-series regressions, we traced out the typical paths of mortgage applications, sales, and prices in the months immediately after a mortgage rate spike.
The Month-by-Month Impact of a Rate Spike Our analysis of mortgage rates and other housing data from January 1999 through April 2013 - just before the current spike - shows that mortgage rates hit refinancing applications (MBA) earlier and harder than any other measure of housing market activity. (Not all of the data series are available back to 1999.) Here's the timeline of what typically happens when rates spike by half a point in a month:
- The month when rates spike: Refinancing applications typically fall by 45% in the month of a spike, with further falls one and two months after mortgage rates jump, compounding the effect. The drop in refinancing applications this year was roughly 50% cumulatively over two months, which actually looks small compared with similar rate jumps in the recent past.
- 1-2 months after the spike: Pending home sales and home-purchase mortgage applications typically decline slightly, though the effect isn't statistically significant. New home sales also decline modestly.
- 3 months after a spike: New home sales and existing home sales drop. That means that the May mortgage rate spike should show up most strongly in August new home sales and existing home sales, both of which will be reported later this month (on September 25 and September 19, respectively).
Month of biggest mortgage rate impact
Effect in month of biggest impact*
Which report will show biggest impact of May 2013 rate spike
|Refinance mortgage applications (MBA)||Same month as rate spike (plus additional impact 1-2 months after)||
|Yes||May data (already reported)|
|Pending home sales (NAR)||1 month after||
|No||June data (already reported)|
|Home-purchase mortgage applications (MBA)||2 months after||
|No||July data (already reported)|
|New home sales (Census)||3 months after (plus modest impact 1-2 months after)||
|Yes||August data, to be reported Sept 25|
|Existing home sales (NAR)||3 months after||
|Yes||August data, to be reported Sept 19|
|Sales prices (Case-Shiller, FHFA)||No short-term impact||
|Note: The "effect in month of biggest impact" equals the month-over-month change in the indicator for a 0.5 point rate spike, relative to when the mortgage rate doesn't change, in percentage points.|
The Longer-Term Impact of Sustained Rate Increases
Even if the immediate impact of mortgage rate spikes is small - aside from the huge effect on refinancing - shouldn't sustained rate increases should depress housing activity? Again, recent history tells a more complicated story. Since 1999, mortgage purchase applications and all measures of sales activity - NAR pending home sales, NAR existing home sales, and Census new home sales - have actually been higher when mortgage rates were higher. Sales prices were also the same level or higher (depending on the sales price index) when mortgage rates were higher compared to periods of lower rates. Of all the measures of housing activity, only refinancing applications were lower during periods of higher mortgage rates.
Here's the missing piece of the puzzle: over the past decade and a half, mortgage rates have been higher when the economy was doing better. Since 1999, the correlation between the monthly unemployment rate - a good, if imperfect, measure of how the economy is doing overall - and the 30-year fixed rate was -0.8, making it a very strong relationship.
Furthermore, every measure of housing activity (except refinancing activity) improved when the overall economy did better. That means that a stronger economy is associated with BOTH higher mortgage rates AND more sales, higher home prices, and more home-purchase mortgage applications. That's why these measures of housing activity go up when mortgage rates are higher.
If we statistically remove the effect of changes in the overall economy (by including the unemployment rate as a control in a simple statistical regression), then we see exactly what we'd expect: mortgage applications, sales, and home prices are all lower when mortgage rates are higher. In other words: all else equal, higher mortgage rates do depress housing demand.
As Rates Rise, All Else Won't Be Equal When it comes to mortgage rates, all else is never equal. Three other 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, the Trulia Price Monitor and 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.