Morning Report: The era of low mortgage rate is over

Vital Statistics:

Last Change
S&P futures 2713 -5.75
Eurostoxx index 394.37 -1.42
Oil (WTI) 71.39 -0.08
10 Year Government Bond Yield 3.09%
30 Year fixed rate mortgage 4.69%

Stocks are lower this morning on no real news. Bonds and MBS are up small.

Slow news day. with no economic data.

The Wall Street Journal has declared the era of low mortgage rates is over. What does this mean for the industry? For the industry overall, it means a tougher fight to keep purchase business, but it also could depress home sales as a combination of higher home prices and higher rates make moving up too unaffordable. NAR estimates that the effect of a 100 basis point increase in mortgage rates can reduce sales by 8%. Mortgage rates have been on a tear this year, increasing 62 basis points since the end of 2017. The 10 year yield has increased by the same amount, and usually mortgage rates don’t move up in a 1:1 ratio with Treasuries. I wouldn’t be surprised to see mortgage rates fall if Treasury yields stall out here.

I suspect that “convexity selling” has been driving the moves in rates. Mortgages have a quirky characteristic called negative convexity. Negative convexity explains why a GN mortgage with an expected duration of 7 years will pay a higher yield than a Treasury with a duration of 7 years. Neither one has credit risk, but they have different interest rate risk. MBS investors (say mortgage REITs or hedge funds) will buy mortgages and hedge interest rate risk by selling Treasuries. As interest rates rise, they can get balanced by either selling MBS (which pushes mortgage rates up) or by buying Treasuries (which pushes interest rates up). Whenever you see big moves in rates during a short period of time, you are often seeing convexity hedging exacerbating the move, which is why you will see a retracement in rates after the re-hedging activity finishes. We saw a big move this week as Treasuries broke the 3.1% level. Mortgage rates have shot up as well.

Do credit cycles drive the business cycle or is it the other way around? Historically, business cycles have driven credit cycles. In other words, business dries up, making debt harder to service, which causes banks to retrench and raise cash. The last two cycles however, the credit cycle drove the business cycle. Credit tightened up first, and then the economy rolled over. Is this a new trend? My guess is that it probably isn’t, as the last two economic booms were driven by bubbles in stocks (late 90s) and residential real estate (mid 00s). This time around, asset prices are high, but we don’t have anything comparable to the stock market or real estate bubbles this time around. Your major macro credit risk is that the Fed overdoes it, not that a bunch of debt backed by garbage assets implodes.

Everyone loves ETFs these days. They have low fees, provide instant diversification, and are liquid. In the fixed income market however, the liquidity is probably a bit of an illusion. Corporate bond issuance has soared since the bottom of the cycle in 2012, yet the amount of market-making capacity has been shrunk by 80-90%. The issue for ETF investors is that they expect to have liquidity in these instruments, but in a crisis the underlying assets of these bond funds will experience a tremendous shock. Why? Because Dodd-Frank’s Volcker Rule has essentially ended market-making as a business for banks. Market-making activity means that when everyone wants to sell, the banks who issued these bonds would usually step in and act as the buyer of last resort. This time around, that won’t happen and ETFs will trade at huge discounts to their supposed net asset value. There is no such thing as a financial free lunch, and investors are going to discover the downside of low fees, tight spreads and marginal cost commissions the next time the credit cycle turns.