Monday, June 15, 2009

Don't handcuff your mortgage & Feds not likely to raise rates

Don't handcuff your mortgage
Gary Marr, Financial Post
Published: Saturday, June 13, 2009

Would you like to pay an extra $300 per month on your mortgage? Not likely.That hasn't stopped a number of Canadians, with the deal of a lifetime on a variable-rate mortgage, from switching over to a more expensive fixed-rate product and paying the extra freight.A fear of rising rates is driving the rash decision. But if you've finally managed to pin your banker to the ground, why on Earth would you let him off the mat?More than 28% of Canadians have a variable-rate product tied to prime, according to the Canadian Association of Accredited Mortgage Professionals (CAAMP). If you negotiated a deal before October of last year, chances are you are now borrowing money for as little as 1.35%. That's based on deals that at one point saw the banks giving 90 basis points off prime. Prime is now 2.25%.The average sale price of a home last month in Canada was $306,366. Based on a 25% downpayment and a 25-year amortization, your monthly payment would be $962.61 at 1.35%. Convert that to a five-year fixed-rate term and you're probably going to have to consider a 4% mortgage rate and a monthly payment of $1,289.04.Rates are rising fast. Most major banks upped their five-year rate by 40 basis points this week, although discounters were still offering 4% this past week."It's not a mass rush yet, but we are starting to see ... people locking in. But variable rates are still so good," says Joan Dal Bianco, vice-president of real estate-secured lending, TD Canada Trust. She stops short of questioning why a consumer would pull out of these "deals" that are no longer available on the market.Try to get a variable-rate mortgage today and the best you can probably hope to get is 60 basis points above prime, or 2.85%.The landscape changed dramatically in October during the credit crunch. As the Bank of Canada lowered rates, the major banks reluctantly lowered prime because of the massive amount of customers with variable-rate products negotiated under the old, higher terms."Bonds yields are going up rapidly and people are starting to realize the rates are going to go up," Ms. Dal Bianco says. Throw in the fact the Bank of Canada used the weasel word "conditional"(on inflation rates)when it promised not to raise rates until June, and you can understand why some people think today's record-low prime rate might not hold.But if you're someplace between 60 to 90 basis points below prime, the rate is going to have to go up pretty fast to justify locking in today at 4%, even though that is just slightly above the all-time low hit last month for a five-year term."I don't understand why you would lock in," says Jim Murphy, chief executive of CAAMP. "Sure, if they start to rise, but [Bank of Canada governor Mark] Carney says they won't rise, so you've got another year at that prime-minus rate."Don Lawby, chief executive of Century 21 Canada, says even when rates do start to increase, they are not going to jump significantly right away. You are not going to get 4% on a fixed rate again, but double-digit rates seem unlikely. "The only logic two locking in would be for someone very sensitive to any rate change and they just want to be secure," Mr. Lawby says.But at what price? If you're using the "feeling secure" logic, why not go for the 10-year fixed-rate product? Rates on that product can be locked at 5.25%, ridiculously low by historical standards. Yet fewer than 10% of Canadians consider a 10-year product.There are some compromises you can make. For starters, there is nothing to prevent consumers from having a blended mortgage at most Canadian banks. Some banks will let you take half your outstanding debt and lock it in. Diversity is preached for stock portfolios, but few people seem to adhere to the same philosophy when managing their debt.Consumers might want to take their cue from business. Few companies would want all of their debt coming due at the same time -- it presents too much risk. The other option is knocking down principal: Make payments based on a 4% rate and have that extra $300 go straight to your principal every month.The bottom line is if you've got a deal on your mortgage, why would you give it back?Dusty wallet Double check your credit card statements. DW is in a bit of a skirmish with Visa over a taxi cab bill. Of course, DW is too cheap to use cabs, but does succumb to them to get to and from airports on vacation. Last trip, the family took an airport limousine and paid the $56 charge. Guess what? The same amount was billed a month later. So far, the taxi cab company has yet to produce a second receipt. In the interim, DW had to pay the second $56 charge.gmarr@national-post.

Fed not likely to raise rates
Peter Hodson, Financial Post

Recently, there has been some loud talk about inflation and how the U. S. Federal Reserve is going to have to start raising interest rates soon in order to nip inflation in the bud.When first confronted with this news, you may have said, "Hogwash! No way in this economic backdrop could the Fed raise rates, slow down growth and risk sending us into a steep 'double-dip' recession."That certainly would be my view. It's unclear at this point even if we are coming out of recession, so it really would be premature to slow things down at this point before any growth traction has been achieved.However, let's not just make assumptions. Let's delve into history to see what the Fed has done in prior cycles.The last U. S. recession was from March, 2001, to November, 2001, a period of eight months. The Fed funds rate was 6.5% from June, 2000, to January, 2001. In January of that year, the Fed lowered the rate to 6%, then went on a 12-month lowering frenzy during the recession and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. By year-end 2001 the Fed funds rate was 1.75%, with the Fed still maintaining an easing bias.Despite the official ending of the recession in November, 2001, the Fed maintained very low interest rates for almost three more years. In fact, it kept lowering rates, down to 1% from June, 2003 to May, 2004. This strategy of keeping rates low despite no recession is now widely blamed as the reason for the creation of the housing bubble that popped in 2007. The Fed finally raised rates in June, 2004, a full 30 months after the recession had ended.In the recession of July, 1990 to March, 1991 (eight months) the Fed had been easing or maintained a neutral bias since February, 1989. At the start of that recession, the Fed funds rate was 8.25%. By the end of the recession, it was down to 6%. Again, despite the recession being over, the Fed kept jamming rates lower, all the way down to 3% in December, 1993. The Fed didn't raise rates again until February, 1994. In that recession, again the Fed kept lowering rates for 30 months after the end of the recession.Going back further into history, in the recession of July, 1981 to November, 1982 (16 months) the Fed acted a little more quickly. In May, 1981 the Fed rate was 20.0%. By December of that year, the Fed had moved rates down to 12%. In the spring of 1982, though, rates were back to 15%. But, showing signs of confusion, by the end of the summer 1982, rates were much lower, at 9.5%. The Fed was tightening rates again by September, 1982, and for a period of time investors had no idea what to expect, as the Fed moved rates up or down seemingly at random for a period of 18 months.In the energy crisis of the early 1970s, the recession lasted from November, 1973, to March, 1975 (16 months). In November, at the start of the recession the Fed funds rate was 9.00% but by May, 1974, because of inflation fears the Fed had already raised the rate to 13%. Recession fears, however, ultimately ruled the day, and by year-end 1975 the Fed rate had been cut in half, to 4.75%. The tightening began anew, however, in April, 1976, 13 months after the official end of the recession.What can we conclude? One, it seems sometimes that the Fed is just winging it, moving rates at random in response to short-term events. But it does seem the Fed is unwilling to raise rates too quickly after any recession.Based on the severity of this economic downturn, you would have to conclude the Fed is unlikely to risk a double-dip recession, and will keep the Fed funds rate very low (now 0% to 0.25%) for a long time.This may, of course, cause inflation, but for the time being, that is still better than a giant de-leveraging economic death-spiral.
peter@sprott.com--- - Peter Hodson is a senior portfolio manager at Sprott Asset Management.

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