Sunday, May 31, 2009

Interest Rate Recap

Interest rates across the board spiked last week. Depending on who you asked and when, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rose as much as one percentage point. Officially, has the national average at around 5.5%, but its survey was conducted before the full brunt of the increase.

Various explanations were given for the spike in interest rates. Impending inflation was at the forefront, with one particularly animated pundit claiming U.S. inflation could approach Zimbabwe levels. Fact is, most people are already expecting some inflation down the road, so inflation alone was an unlikely reason. A more plausible explanation is that the Treasury Department has been issuing so much debt lately, $101 billion worth last week alone, that it simply swamped demand, so bond prices fell and the interest the Treasury had to pay to attract buyers rose.

At any rate, it's not the end of the world. Over the past 25 years, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage has averaged around 7.8%. In 2007, the average rate was around 6.3%. And even last year, the average rate was around 6.2%.

The big concern with last week's rate spike is that it could put downward pressure on home prices and sales. It's a legitimate concern, to be sure, given that existing home sales rose again in April to an annual pace of 4.68 million units, with about 45% of April's sales attributable to foreclosures and short sales. Meanwhile, new home sales continue to make positive strides, albeit slight, with sales rising to 352,000 units annually.

The good new is that homes remain affordable, at least when vetting the national numbers, which, admittedly, aren't always applicable to the local scene. That said, the median price for an existing home in April was $170,200, while the median price for a new home was $209,700.

Eric P. Egeland

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