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Mortgage rates today, February 20, 2020, plus lock recommendation…

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Forecast plus what’s driving mortgage rates today

Average mortgage rates rose modestly yesterday, as we predicted. But it’s not time to panic yet. Those rates are still a shade lower than they were last Friday. And they’re still ultralow in the wider context.

Markets this morning remain subdued, making big movements in mortgage rates unlikely. And, first thing, they were acting in rate-friendly ways.

Program Rate APR* Change
Conventional 30 yr Fixed 3.813 3.813 +0.06%
Conventional 15 yr Fixed 3.75 3.75 Unchanged
Conventional 5 yr ARM 3.75 3.943 Unchanged
30 year fixed FHA 3.563 4.549 Unchanged
15 year fixed FHA 3.438 4.386 Unchanged
5 year ARM FHA 3.25 4.37 -0.01%
30 year fixed VA 3.188 3.369 Unchanged
15 year fixed VA 3.063 3.391 Unchanged
5 year ARM VA 3.5 3.664 +0.05%
Your rate might be different. Click here for a personalized rate quote. See our rate assumptions here.

So mortgage rates today look likely to fall moderately. But, as always, events may overtake that prediction.

» MORE: Check Today’s Rates from Top Lenders (February 20, 2020)

Market data affecting today’s mortgage rates

First thing this morning, markets looked set to deliver mortgage rates today that are somewhat lower. Approaching 10 a.m. (ET), the data, compared with roughly the same time yesterday morning, were:

  • Major stock indexes were all lower. (Good for mortgage rates.) When investors are buying shares they’re often selling bonds, which pushes prices of Treasurys down and increases yields and mortgage rates. The opposite happens when indexes are lower
  • Gold prices rose to $1,619 an ounce from $1,607. (Good for mortgage rates*.) In general, it’s better for rates when gold rises, and worse when gold falls. Gold tends to rise when investors worry about the economy. And worried investors tend to push rates lower
  • Oil prices rose to $53.92 a barrel from $52.77 (Bad for mortgage rates* because energy prices play a large role in creating inflation and also point to future economic activity.) 
  • The yield on 10-year Treasurys nudged lower to 1.54% from 1.57%. (Good for mortgage rates.) More than any other market, mortgage rates tend to follow these particular Treasury bond yields
  •  CNN Business Fear & Greed index moved lowe to 52 from 56 out of a possible 100 points. (Good for mortgage rates.) “Greedy” investors push bond prices down (and interest rates up) as they leave the bond market and move into stocks, while “fearful” investors do the opposite. So lower readings are better than higher ones

*A change of a dollar on gold prices or a cent on oil ones is a tiny fraction of 1%. So we only count meaningful differences as good or bad for mortgage rates.

Today might be a slightly better one for mortgage rates.

Verify your new rate (February 20, 2020)

This week

Virus still big factor for mortgage rates

The Wuhan coronavirus (Covid-19, standing for Coronavirus disease 2019) has been significantly affecting US markets since Jan 21, when the first case was confirmed on American soil. Between then and now, average mortgage rates fell, mostly moderately, or held steady on all but five days.

Recently, stock markets have mostly been quick to shrug off the implications of the virus, as they do many other threats (see below). But others have been more swayed by media reports about the medical and economic threats the Covid-19 poses.

On Tuesday, fresh grounds for optimism emerged as the rate of new infections in China appeared to be slowing. But, by this morning, virus fears were again haunting markets.

And that’s probably sensible. Also on Tuesday, the World Health Organization warned that it was too soon to conclude that the worst was over. Its director general remarked, “It’s too early to tell if this reported decline will continue. Every scenario is still on the table.”

Unreliable reports

One problem faced by investors and medical researchers alike is that the Chinese government keeps changing the basis on which it counts new infections.

And much recent volatility in markets can be explained by investors reacting to good or bad figures that turned out to be more connected to amendments in counting criteria than actual changes in infection rates.

Mortgage rate volatility ahead?

But if investor sentiment becomes even more driven by news stories about the virus than it has been so far, we could be in for some serious volatility. Because the news can swing from positive to negative and back in hours.

Health experts can agree neither on the likely speed of the outbreak’s spread nor the severity of its outcomes. And they often issue contradictory statements almost simultaneously.

Meanwhile, governments are increasingly trying to craft narratives that head off panic over both the health and economic consequences of the epidemic. And not all of them are scrupulous about avoiding fake news.

So markets that bend with every passing news cycle may turn out to be “lively,” to say the least. And mortgage rates could bounce up and down like Tigger on E.

How scary are the health implications?

This outbreak will inevitably draw comparisons with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) one in 2003 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) one in 2012. Both those were coronaviruses, too. The less famous MERS actually killed more people (about 875) than SARS (750). But MERS infected only about 2,500, while SARS was more infectious and affected about 8,000.

Overnight figures show Covid-19 has been confirmed in 75,752 (up from 75,223 yesterday) cases, and has killed 2,130 (up from yesterday’s 2,012). Yes, those figures — assuming they’re accurate — show it to be way more infectious than the others. But they also reveal a much lower death rate (2.8%) so far among those infected than that of either SARS (nearly 10%) or MERS (35%). In fact, typical “seasonal” influenza (just your ordinary flu that comes around each year) has a death rate of about 1% of those who contract it.

And, like seasonal flu, this new strain most severely affects those who are older (over 60 years) or who already have existing medical conditions that compromise their immune systems. Fatalities among those infected who are younger or middle-aged adults in good health are surprisingly rare.

Still grounds for health fears

Of course, scientists are still learning about the outbreak’s epidemiology. So its mortality rate may rise or fall. And the virus itself could change (mutate) and become more or less infectious or deadly.

And you can certainly argue that our method of calculating the virus’s death rate is too crude. Tens of thousands are still sick and their outcomes unknown.

So, if you look only at the known outcomes (those previously infected and now officially declared well against those who’ve died) the mortality rate is closer to 11%. But that, too, is unreliable. Because most current patients are likely in low-risk groups. And many of those infected may have symptoms that are so mild (or nonexistent) that they don’t even realize they have the virus. Indeed, one model built by Imperial College London predicts a death rate of about 1%.

So it’s too soon to make definitive judgments.

Economic impact

But, leaving aside the health and human effects, the economic impact this outbreak has already had is severe. On Feb. 6, ratings agency S&P reduced its forecast for China’s growth in gross domestic product (GDP) this year from 5.7% to 5%. And, on Feb. 12, UBS forecast that the Australian economy would shrink by between 0.1% and 0.5% this quarter, directly as a result of Covid-19.

And the virus’s effects globally could be enormous. On Feb. 11, Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell warned the House Financial Services Committee of the risk it poses to the economic outlook for the US as well as the rest of the world.

Beyond China’s economic borders

On Monday, Apple warned that its revenue forecasts for this quarter would be adversely affected by Covid-19. It blamed lower supply of iPhones from its factories in China coupled with lower demand from Chinese consumers.

On Feb. 5, Chinese executives estimated that the nation’s oil consumption would be 25% lower this month, something that is disrupting oil markets worldwide. Meanwhile, other sectors inside China and outside are also being affected. Foreign importers are experiencing shortages in the goods they normally buy from the country. And, on Feb. 4, Bloomberg noted:

China is the largest exporter of intermediate manufactured goods that can be resold between industries or used to produce other things, so its problems quickly reverberate through global supply chains. Indeed, global reliance on those products doubled to 20% from 2005 to 2015.

As if to reinforce that point, Hyundai announced on Feb. 7 that it was suspending operations at its Ulsan facility in South Korea, the world’s most productive car plant. It was short of vital parts normally imported from China. Other car plants have announced partial closures on certain days, as have many factories in other sectors.

Economic reports this week

Some US markets have made brave attempts to tear their eyes away from the coronavirus on a few days recently. But they soon found that impossible. Indeed, they even ignored the all-important and stronger-than-expected employment situation report on Feb. 7. And that’s something that almost never happens.

If their obsession with Covid-19 continues this week, then the following economic reports may turn out to be irrelevant to mortgage rates. Indeed, this week’s calendar of releases may not have moved markets much, even were the coronavirus never to have existed. Because no report in coming days is exciting and most are sleep-inducing.

But, of course, more normally, any economic report can move markets, as long as it contains news that’s shockingly good or devastatingly bad — providing that news is unexpected.

Forecasts matter

That’s because markets tend to price in analysts’ consensus forecasts (below, we use those reported by MarketWatch) in advance of the publication of reports. So it’s usually the difference between the actual reported numbers and the forecast that has the greatest effect.

And that means even an extreme difference between actuals for the previous reporting period and this one can have little immediate impact, providing that difference is expected and has been factored in ahead.

Although there are exceptions, you can usually expect downward pressure on mortgage rates from worse-than-expected figures and upward on better ones. However, for most reports, much of the time, that pressure may be imperceptible or barely perceptible.

This week’s calendar

This week’s calendar for economic reports comprises:

  • Monday: Nothing — Presidents Day
  • Tuesday: February NAHB homebuilders’ index (actual 74 index points; no forecast but 75 in January)
  • Wednesday: January producer price index (actual +0.5%; forecast +0.2%), housing starts (actual 1.567 million new homes started; forecast 1.415 million) and building permits (actual 1.551 million permits; forecast 1.435 million). Also FOMC minutes (see below)
  • Thursday: Nothing
  • Friday: February Markit manufacturing PMI flash* (no forecast but 51.9 index points in January) and Markit nonmanufacturing PMI flash* (no forecast but 53.4 index points in January). Plus January’s existing home sales (forecast 5.36 million homes sold)

*A PMI is a purchasing managers’ index (based on a survey of those managers) that’s seen as an indicator of future economic activity. And a flash is an initial reading that’s subject to change later.

FOMC minutes

The publication of the minutes of each previous meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is often a big event. After all, the FOMC is the Fed policy committee that sets rates.

But their release yesterday for January’s meeting didn’t affect markets much. Covid-19 got only a passing mention because back then it was only just emerging as a potentially serious issue. Yields on 10-year Treasurys just edged lower on publication, taking the edge off earlier rises.

Today’s drivers of change

What 2020 might hold

The year 2019 ended with most stock indexes at exceptional or record highs. And investors had one of the best 12 months in living memory. So will 2020 bring more of the same? It mostly has so far.

But few think that will continue for long. Still, most economists, analysts and observers seem to believe we’re looking at an OK year.

Certainly, fewer are expecting a US recession during 2020 than was the case a few months ago. When Reuters polled 100 economists in January, about 20-25% thought one was coming this year and around 30-35% expected one within the next two years. 

That survey also saw a consensus among the economists polled over the expectation that the US economy would “coast” this year, “with annualized growth expected to have barely moved from the latest reported rate of 2.1%” through to the second quarter of 2021. 

The Federal Reserve’s role

And several financial reviews of 2019 warned that stock market rises have largely been fueled by the Federal Reserve’s actions rather than underlying economic strength, though others dispute that.

The suggestion is that some investors see stocks as a one-way bet. If anything goes wrong (virus, economic slowdown … whatever), the Fed will ride to the rescue with lower interest rates and limitless stimulus packages.

That would certainly explain why major indexes are regularly hitting record highs amid so-so economic data and corporate results. On Sunday, CNN Business quoted Bleakley Advisory Group chief investment officer Peter Boockvar:

I think the stock market is just under this belief that no matter what comes our way the Fed is going to save us. I honestly believe it’s as simplistic as that.

But the Fed’s supply of metaphorical gas to maintain such momentum is running low — as is its willingness to use what’s left. That was confirmed on Jan. 29, following that month’s policy meeting. 

So Fed-driven market growth later this year may be more modest than in 2019.

Don’t take forecasts too seriously

Just don’t take such forecasts too seriously. And never forget a remark made by the late Harvard economics professor John Kenneth Galbraith:

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.

Real-world forecasts also gloomy

On Jan. 20, global accountancy firm PwC unveiled its 23rd annual survey, which this year polled almost 1,600 chief executive officers (CEOs) from 83 countries. A whopping 53% of respondents predicted a decline in global GDP growth in 2020. That was up from 29% in 2019 and 5% in 2018.

Who was most pessimistic? Those from North America, where 63% of CEOs expected lower global growth. And only 36% of American CEOs were positive about their own companies’ prospects for the year ahead. Again, that was many fewer than in 2019. Chair of the PwC network Bob Moritz issued a statement:

Given the lingering uncertainty over trade tensions, geopolitical issues and the lack of agreement on how to deal with climate change, the drop in confidence in economic growth is not surprising — even if the scale of the change in mood is. These challenges facing the global economy are not new — however the scale of them and the speed at which some of them are escalating is new.

Lower mortgage rates ahead?

It’s not hard to find experts who predict that mortgage rates could plumb new depths in 2020. And they may be proved right.

Those issues highlighted in the PwC survey are real. A recession still might arise. The phase-two US-China trade talks could collapse and the whole dispute escalate. Covid-19 could mutate and turn into a devastating pandemic. Or some undreamed-of crisis could come out of nowhere. Any of those could send those rates plummeting. But they’re all highly speculative.

And don’t forget John Kenneth Galbraith’s observation.

Rate forecasts for 2020

It may be a mistake to rely on experts’ forecasts. But there’s nothing wrong with taking them into account, appropriately seasoned with a pinch of salt. After all, who else are we going to ask when making plans?

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) each has a team of economists dedicated to monitoring and forecasting what will happen to the economy, the housing sector and mortgage rates. And here are their latest forecasts for the average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage during each quarter (Q1, Q2 …) in 2020. Fannie’s and the MBA’s were published in February, but Freddie’s latest forecast came out in December:

Forecaster Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
Fannie Mae 3.5% 3.4% 3.4% 3.4%
Freddie Mac 3.8% 3.8% 3.8% 3.8%
MBA 3.6% 3.7% 3.7% 3.7%

Freddie Mac reckons that particular mortgage rate averaged 3.9% during 2019. So, if the experts’ forecasts turn out to be right, it could be another good year for new mortgage borrowers — and for existing ones who want to refinance.

Negative mortgage rates

Just don’t expect zero or negative mortgage rates in America anytime soon. Still, they’re not unthinkable within a year or two.

Already, Denmark’s Jyske Bank is offering its local customers a mortgage with a nominal interest rate of -0.5%. Yes, that’s minus 0.5%. However, after fees, that’s likely to be closer to a free or incredibly cheap mortgage than one that actually pays borrowers.

But don’t think there isn’t a wider price to pay for ultralow mortgage rates. On Dec. 18, The New York Times reported that, in much of Europe, these are “driving a property boom that is pricing many residents out of big cities and causing concern among policymakers.” And many fear a bubble that could end badly.

Trade

For now, trade may be on the back burner for markets. That’s because, on January 15, President Donald Trump signed a phase-one trade agreement with China’s Vice-Premier Liu He.

Although the White House remains proud of that deal, critics are less sure. They point to weaknesses that can’t be resolved until a phase-two deal. And one of those is unlikely until 2021.

Limited economic boost

Following its January poll of economists, Reuters chose to quote Janwillem Acket, who’s chief economist at Julius Baer, as representative of wider opinions:

The recent Phase 1 deal between the U.S. and China suggests decreasing odds of an escalation to a full-blown trade war. However, the deal so far is not comprehensive enough to significantly boost economic momentum.

Pain

However, perhaps the new deal’s biggest drawback is that it leaves so many tariffs still in place. According to an analysis, published on the day of the signing, by the Peterson Institute for International Economics:

Even with the phase one deal in effect, Trump will have increased the average US tariff on imports from China to 19.3% from 3.0% in January 2018. The deal means the average US tariff will be reduced only slightly from its current level of 21.0%.

And this dispute has been causing some pain to both sides. China’s slipped to third place from first in the Census Bureau’s list of America’s trading partners. And its economy is certainly under strain. Indeed, on Jan. 17, China reported its slowest annual GDP growth in 29 years — though that was still +6.1% in 2019. And all that was before the coronavirus hit.

But the dispute’s impact here has also been painful for many.

Higher prices for American families

A September study by the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy estimated, “the tariffs will cost the average household $2,031 per year, and will be recurring so long as the tariffs stay in effect.”

Now, the White House would undoubtedly challenge that figure, as do some more independent analyses. Some believe that American businesses are bearing much of the cost and are yet to pass that on to consumers. And prices may rise significantly only when stocks of goods that arrived before tariffs were introduced are exhausted. Many importers increased their orders earlier last year to get in ahead of tariff implementation dates.

But, on Dec. 2, New York Federal Reserve Bank researchers published a report that showed that American businesses and consumers were indeed bearing the brunt of the tariffs. They found Chinese import prices fell by only 2% between June 2018 and September 2019. And that means Americans were picking up the rest of the tab on tariffs as high as 25%. It’s the timing of the pain and how it’s distributed that’s disputed.

Of course, both those studies were conducted before the new phase-one deal was announced. Now that’s signed, you can shave perhaps 11% off additional tariff costs, according to calculations by Yahoo! Finance.

European Union next?

The president occasionally makes bellicose remarks about what he perceives to be an unfair trade imbalance between the US and the European Union. The EU is the world’s biggest trading bloc. Together, its member states form a larger economy than China or even America.

The administration has already in 2019 imposed tariffs on nearly $10 billion worth of imports from the EU, including $2.4 billion on French luxury goods in December. However, a couple of glimmers of light emerged during the World Economic Forum in Davos (Jan 21-24), which was attended by the president and other world leaders.

During the week of the forum, French officials suggested that a temporary trade truce had been agreed to allow for further talks. And, on Jan 22, hopes for a new US-EU trade agreement grew. That week, The Financial Times ran a headline, “Trump and EU promise to press on to reach trade deal.”

How trade disputes hurt

All this has been fueling uncertainty in markets. And that, in turn, created volatility. Many of the recent (pre-virus) wild swings in mortgage rates, bond yields, stock markets, and gold and oil prices have been down to hopes and fears over trade.

Markets generally hate trade disputes because they introduce uncertainty, dampen trade, slow global growth and are disruptive to established supply chains. President Trump is confident that analysis is wrong and that America will come out a winner.

Rate lock recommendation

We suggest

We suggest that you lock if you’re less than 30 days from closing. True, mortgage rates have been moving within unusually tight ranges in recent months. So the risk of floating for longer may be limited. But the prospect of worthwhile gains seems similarly restricted, assuming an absence of earth-shattering news. 

Of course, we’re keeping our eye on the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak. And there might easily be a bounce if and when its risks are perceived to fade. Indeed, some loan officers are already recommending locking if you’re within 45 days of closing.

However, none of this means we expect you to lock on days when mortgage rates are actively falling. That advice is intended for more normal times.

Only you can decide

Of course, financially conservative borrowers might want to lock immediately, almost regardless of when they’re due to close. After all, current mortgage rates remain exceptionally low and a great deal is assured.

On the other hand, risk-takers might prefer to bide their time and take a chance on future falls. But only you can decide on the level of risk with which you’re personally comfortable.

If you are still floating, do remain vigilant right up until you lock. Continue to watch key markets and news cycles closely. In particular, look out for stories that might affect the performance of the American economy. As a very general rule, good news tends to push mortgage rates up, while bad drags them down.

When to lock anyway

You may wish to lock your loan anyway if you are buying a home and have a higher debt-to-income ratio than most. Indeed, you should be more inclined to lock because any rises in rates could kill your mortgage approval. If you’re refinancing, that’s less critical and you may be able to gamble and float.

If your closing is weeks or months away, the decision to lock or float becomes complicated. Obviously, if you know rates are rising, you want to lock in as soon as possible. However, the longer your lock, the higher your upfront costs. On the flip side, if a higher rate would wipe out your mortgage approval, you’ll probably want to lock in even if it costs more.

If you’re still floating, stay in close contact with your lender, and keep an eye on markets.

My advice

Bearing in mind professor Galbraith’s warning, I personally recommend:

  • LOCK if closing in 7 days
  • LOCK if closing in 15 days
  • LOCK if closing in 30 days
  • FLOAT if closing in 45 days
  • FLOAT if closing in 60 days

But it’s entirely your decision.

» MORE: Show Me Today’s Rates (February 20, 2020)

What causes rates to rise and fall?

Mortgage interest rates depend a great deal on the expectations of investors. Good economic news tends to be bad for interest rates because an active economy raises concerns about inflation. Inflation causes fixed-income investments like bonds to lose value, and that causes their yields (another way of saying interest rates) to increase.

For example, suppose that two years ago, you bought a $1,000 bond paying 5% interest ($50) each year. (This is called its “coupon rate” or “par rate” because you paid $1,000 for a $1,000 bond, and because its interest rate equals the rate stated on the bond — in this case, 5%).

  • Your interest rate: $50 annual interest / $1,000 = 5.0%

When rates fall

That’s a pretty good rate today, so lots of investors want to buy it from you. You can sell your $1,000 bond for $1,200. The buyer gets the same $50 a year in interest that you were getting. It’s still 5% of the $1,000 coupon. However, because he paid more for the bond, his return is lower.

  • Your buyer’s interest rate: $50 annual interest / $1,200 = 4.2%

The buyer gets an interest rate, or yield, of only 4.2%. And that’s why, when demand for bonds increases and bond prices go up, interest rates go down.

When rates rise

However, when the economy heats up, the potential for inflation makes bonds less appealing. With fewer people wanting to buy bonds, their prices decrease, and then interest rates go up.

Imagine that you have your $1,000 bond, but you can’t sell it for $1,000 because unemployment has dropped and stock prices are soaring. You end up getting $700. The buyer gets the same $50 a year in interest, but the yield looks like this:

  • $50 annual interest / $700 = 7.1%

The buyer’s interest rate is now slightly more than 7%. Interest rates and yields are not mysterious. You calculate them with simple math.

Show Me Today’s Rates (February 20, 2020)

Mortgage rate methodology

The Mortgage Reports receives rates based on selected criteria from multiple lending partners each day. We arrive at an average rate and APR for each loan type to display in our chart. Because we average an array of rates, it gives you a better idea of what you might find in the marketplace. Furthermore, we average rates for the same loan types. For example, FHA fixed with FHA fixed. The end result is a good snapshot of daily rates and how they change over time.



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