Fresh Economic Data Give Clues to Where Mortgage Rates May Be Headed

Mortgage industry analysts have been watching and waiting to see what the Federal Reserve will do—or say—next about rate cuts. They’re hedging their bets that the Fed will cut rates this year and, as an indirect result, mortgage rates will fall, too, and help revive the housing market.

Watch for coverage of today’s Fed meeting in RISMedia’s Daily News tomorrow.

Economic data plays a key role in the Fed’s timing, though. A key performance metric Fed officials and economists watch is the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index, which measures core inflation.

PCE inflation (excluding food and energy costs) rose 0.2% in December from November’s 0.1%, and increased 2.9% from a year ago, according to data released Friday from the U.S. Commerce Department. 

The annual rate of core inflation in December fell from 3.2%. That’s the lowest annual rate in nearly three years. Additionally, gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a pace of 3.3% in the fourth quarter, surpassing market expectations.

These strong economic readings pushed the 10-year Treasury yield, which mortgage rates tend to track, up to 4.14% on Friday before flattening later in the day.

Fed officials have hinted in recent speeches that cooling inflation supports the case for rate cuts—but at a more measured pace than before.

As for how those cuts will drive mortgage rates, expect “slow and steady declines,” likely in the latter half of the year, said Odeta Kushi, deputy chief economist with First American Financial.

“The Fed wants to see the long and variable lags of monetary policy so they can make their way through the economy before deciding on any rate cuts,” Kushi told RISMedia, noting that anything can happen between now and the end of the year to change the Fed’s stance. “I think that the Fed has emphasized that the path to rate cuts is highly uncertain, and they’re going to take a sort of data-driven, cautious approach.”

Fed officials’ comments temper rate-cut expectations

Several Fed officials have signaled a more cautious approach to rate cuts, dimming investors’ hopes of quick action.

During a virtual speech to the Brookings Institution on Jan. 16, Federal Reserve Governor Christopher Waller said he believes the Fed’s restrictive monetary policy is “set properly” to bring down core inflation closer to the Fed’s target of 2%. However, Waller isn’t in a rush to cut rates until inflation not only reaches the Fed target rate, but stays there for a prolonged period.

“When the time is right to begin lowering rates, I believe it can and should be lowered methodically and carefully,” Waller said in his speech. “In many previous cycles, which began after shocks to the economy either threatened or caused a recession, the FOMC cut rates reactively and did so quickly and often by large amounts.

“This cycle, however, with economic activity and labor markets in good shape and inflation coming down gradually to 2 percent, I see no reason to move as quickly or cut as rapidly as in the past.”

It didn’t take long for the markets to react to Waller’s comments. The 10-year Treasury yield jumped sharply after his speech by about 30 basis points since late December and is currently hovering near 4.1% after reaching a recent low at about 3.8%.

In separate remarks earlier this month, Fed Governor Michelle Bowman, who tends to be more hawkish, said a sustained march toward the 2% inflation goal will make it more likely to lower rates to prevent the Fed’s monetary policy from being too restrictive.

“In my view, we are not yet at that point. And important upside inflation risks remain,” Bowman said in her remarks, adding that she was still willing to raise the Fed funds rate in the future if inflation stalls or ticks up again. “Restoring price stability is essential for achieving maximum employment and stable prices over the longer run.”

Mortgage industry looks to rate cuts to help spur loan activity

2023 was a painful year for housing. As mortgage rates soared near the 8% mark, existing-home sales cratered to their lowest level last year (4.09 million) since 1995 even as median home prices reached a record high of $389,800, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

Hobbled by anemic loan originations and next-to-no refinance activity, mortgage lenders aggressively cut staff last year (especially back-office positions like underwriters and loan processors). Others merged with bigger players with strong cash positions. And some lenders threw in the towel altogether, closing up shop.

“Our data shows that your typical independent mortgage banker trimmed their employee count by more than 40% from the peak in 2021 to the most recent data points,” Mike Fratantoni, chief economist with the Mortgage Bankers Association, said in an interview with RISMedia.

Fratantoni said mortgage volume will be somewhat higher in 2024 in tandem with higher sales of new and existing homes. However, potential homebuyers—especially those with the headwind of having record-low mortgage rates—may be hesitant to make a move until rates hit a certain sweet spot.

“As we get to the low (6% range) at the end of this year and below 6% next year…that’s going to be enough to get people’s attention,” Fratantoni said.

Melissa Cohn, regional vice president of William Raveis Mortgage, points to a Fed rate cut as being a positive signal to potential homebuyers of an improving market. However, Cohn added that a notable drop in mortgage rates will likely push home prices higher due to higher demand, so buyers shouldn’t stay on the sidelines too long.

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