Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mortgage Rates Could Spike When Government Subsidy Ends This Month

This is by Alan J. Heavens in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As the spring real estate season kicks in and the tax credit deadline for sale agreements approaches, the government is ending a program that has kept interest rates low and housing-affordability levels high for months.

On March 31, the Federal Reserve will stop buying mortgage-backed securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, returning control of interest rates to private investors.

For months, industry observers have predicted that once government supports are removed, interest rates will rise quickly, pushing many of the first-time buyers critical to housing’s recovery out of the market.

In late summer and fall 2009, lured by fixed 30-year mortgage rates under 5% and the first $8,000 tax credit, which expired Nov. 30, first-timers pushed sales of previously owned homes to the highest levels in at least three years, reducing record inventories and braking price declines.

That tax credit was renewed Nov. 5 and expanded to buyers who had not purchased a property in five years, although the credit for repeat buyers is $6,500. The second credit expires April 30, is unlikely to be renewed, and remains the engine moving buyers.

As the date for the Fed pullout approaches, analysts now generally agree that an immediate rate spike is no longer the likely result. “We think there will be a significant increase in private demand for mortgage-backed securities to take the place of the Fed,” said David Berson, chief economist at PMI Group in Walnut Creek, Calif. Not enough to offset the Fed’s departure, he said, with rates possibly increasing a quarter of a percentage point, “but a significant one.”

On the other hand, said Holland, Pa.-based economist Joel L. Naroff, low rates are not sustainable, and “the only way to get the market to stand on its own is to get people to become realistic again about prices and rates.” Rates will likely rise, but “the level will still be historically low,” Naroff said.

When rates do rise, likely by year’s end, it won’t be because of the Fed’s action, but “natural macroeconomic forces” like a recovering economy and the high budget deficit, said Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors chief economist.

Many Fed officials have emphasized that “high unemployment and tame inflation warrant a continued promise to hold rates very low for a long time,” said Peter Buchsbaum, of Arlington Capital Mortgage in Horsham, Pa.

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