Friday, August 30, 2013

Rising interest rates and your mortgage

By Mark Kerzner
President, TMG The Mortgage Group

Over the past few years it seemed every expert was telling us that interest rates would be rising, but after years of record low fixed rates, I think many of us stopped believing the headlines. 

With bond prices dropping and yields on the rise, those rates (fixed-rate mortgages) that are tied to bond yields have shown dramatic movement over the past month. For the most qualified, the rates on 5-year fixed mortgages have increased from a low of 2.89% to 3.59%, and are potentially still rising.

The term, “jumping on the band-wagon” now comes to mind. We see it most often with professional sports teams, fads, and sometimes even with politicians. It seems we may be seeing it in the mortgage industry as well. In the past week, I’ve read a number of articles speaking to the virtues of variable-rate mortgages.

Are variable-rate products quickly becoming the better option?

Do you remember the days of 5-year adjusted rate mortgages (ARM) priced at PRIME – 75 or even PRIME – 90? If you were fortunate enough to have one of those products and stayed with it over the course of the term, you’ve come out a winner. Since the last PRIME – 75 funded approximately four to five years ago, those rates have become extinct and now those clients renewing their mortgages have a choice to make.

Should they renew into a current ARM product at PRIME – 40(ish)or take the security of a fixed-rate term in the fear that rates will continue to rise?

Economists are predicting the Bank of Canada will hold the overnight rate steady into 2014. That said, take these predictions with a grain of salt as many of those same economists had already called for increases back in 2012 and 2013. Economic conditions change and so do outlooks and forecasts.

When looking to determine if there will be interest rate shock it’s important for mortgage renewers to consider not just their current effective interest rate, which may be PRIME – 75 or 2.25%. Rather, focus on what the rates were at the time the mortgage was funded when PRIME was 4.75% (August 2008) to the current rate options. 

In many cases there will be no shock at all, especially if clients took advantage of hold-the-payment options while rates started to decrease. For example, the effective interest rate and payments set at the time of funding was 4% and current 5-yr. fixed mortgages can still be had at the 3.39 to 3.69% range.

Relatively speaking, variable-rate mortgages are cheaper today at PRIME (3%) – 40 than they were five years ago when they were at PRIME (4.75%) – 75.  The spread between fixed rates and variable rates is sometimes referred to as the “rate premium” or even “fixed rate insurance” and is a good evaluator of the attractiveness between fixed and variable.

This time, five years ago, that spread was approximately 150 basis points (5-yr. fixed rates averaged 5.50%). Today that spread is around 100 basis points. If that spread grows, variable-rate mortgages will again become more attractive compared to their fixed-rate counterparts.

Before making any final decisions keep in mind two last items. First, in late 2008 both fixed rates and PRIME were dropping. Today, PRIME is remaining flat for the time being while fixed rates are rising.  Second, credit and lending guidelines have changed significantly in the past five years.

Today’s borrowers are better qualified and have fewer opportunities to defer interest costs using extended amortization and lower down payment options.  Those who are willing to take the additional risks of variable products are better equipped to do so than those in the past even though the risk premium is effectively higher than it was five years ago. 

That said, our rate environment today compared to August 2008 is quite different since both variable and fixed rates do not seem to be dropping. To really understand the best option, it’s best to discuss these factors with a dedicated mortgage broker. He or she will review the various products available and can help clients select the best one that fits lifestyle and financial goals.

Understanding the impact of these rising rates

It is possible that rising interest rates are here to stay, but I think it is important to ask the question: Is it just a blip or a trend? For those who believe it is a trend, here are a few important factors to keep in mind in a rising interest rate environment:

1. Affordability. According to its latest quarterly report, RBC says its affordability index reversed course, meaning housing has gotten relatively more expensive, in two of the three categories it measures. Mortgage rates in isolation don’t mean very much. What is really important though is how much your payment is relative to your income.

2. More people will select variable even though they still must qualify on the artificially-set benchmark rate. This is simply a reality of the mortgage business.  I see this trend continuing as long as the Bank of Canada does not raise its overnight rate.

3. Reduced demand for housing may result in lower home pricing. If affordability does become an issue, and more potential buyers are forced to the sidelines, then fewer people will be looking for houses. Economics would then dictate that with fewer people looking and supply remaining constant, this would lead to falling home prices.

4. Short term rush into the housing market for those sitting on the fence.  The flipside to point #3 above is that there are a great many people who have been looking at purchasing.  Rate increases might trigger buying activity out of concern that rates will keep rising and they may be priced out of the market.

5. If rates are on an upward trajectory make sure you get pre-approved with a rate hold as soon as possible. Fixed rates may be on the rise but you can often protect yourself against major increases, on a short term basis, with a rate hold.

6. If rates continue to rise and you originated your mortgage at your bank branch you must shop your mortgage at renewal.  There may be thousands of dollars at stake. This topic has been covered numerous times and there are many tips to be had. (

In the end, market volatility breeds uncertainty but it also brings opportunity. This is an ideal time to talk mortgage strategy with your mortgage professional.  The strategy is vital and is, in many respects, more important than the rate.

It may be time to consider the variable rate or, from a historical context, it may be a great time to consider locking in to a fixed-rate product.  Either way, it’s up to you to be proactive and seek out advice.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What’s happening with interest rates?

Interest rates are on the rise.The Big banks have been inching up their rates since May, but have now moved quickly to 5-year fixed rates ranging from 3.79% or 3.89%, which is a 60 basis point hike from what they were six months ago.  The 5 year bond yields have themselves increased by 80+ basis points since the Spring.

However, variable mortgage rates and the prime lending rates are not increasing – yet. So, if you have a line of credit, your rates are staying the same.  If you have a variable mortgage rate or an adjusted rate mortgage (ARM), you’re safe for now.Only fixed mortgage rates are increasing.If you are renewing a mortgage, this is where you’ll likely feel the impact.

If you opted for a variable rate mortgage, today’s variable rates are, on average, around 2.65% compared to 2.1% five years ago. However, 5-yr. fixed posted rates were hovering around six per cent in 2008, but a mortgage professional could get a discounted rate from 4.2% to 4.9%. As fixed rates rise and the Prime rate stays put, now may be a good time to speak with a mortgage professional about the benefits of going variable.

But if banks follow RBC’s lead, then it will be tougher to qualify for a variable rate. The Royal Bank not only increased its fixed rates but also its benchmark rate for qualifying borrowers for variable rates and for fixed rate terms less than five years. The increase is a 20 basis points jump, from 5.14% to 5.34%, which means a household will need approximately $1,100 more income to get a variable-rate mortgage on a $300,000 house with 5% down.

This is also not a good time to wait it out, thinking that rates will come down as they have in the past. It may not be the case this time. Consumers have been getting the message about curbing household debt and have become better money managers.The housing market is showing signs of life and house prices are stabilizing. The economy is moving forward and low rates are just not sustainable anymore.

Fixed rates rely of bond markets. Bond yields are climbing higher so fixed rates climb right along with them. In June, the 5-year yield was up as much as 20+ basis points in less than 48 hours, driven by optimistic economic comments from the U.S. Fed. In CIBC’s Weekly Market Insight for July 12, 2013, chief economist Avery Shenfeld said, “As we move into 2014, better growth will see the Fed accepting a further climb in long rates.”

Stephen Poloz, the new Governor of the Bank of Canada said he would be holding the prime rate at 1 per cent. This is the number banks use to determine their lending rates for lines of credit and variable-rate mortgages. Poloz also added, “Over time, as the normalization of these conditions unfolds [growing economy], a gradual normalization of policy interest rates can also be expected, consistent with achieving the 2-per-cent inflation target.”

That’s a nice way to say that rates will be going up. When is hard to predict,  but all indications are for early-to mid 2014.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Housing market breathes again

After months of somewhat depressing news for the housing industry, Canada’s housing market is showing signs of life. The buzz now is about a soft landing rather than a bubble bursting. Demand has increased in most parts of the country and new construction activity is increasing. Home prices are rising as well.
Despite warnings from analysts about a housing bubble, housing-market data are showing few signs of a sharp correction. A housing bubble is a type of economic bubble that occurs periodically in real estate markets,  characterized by rapid increases in valuations of housing until they reach unsustainable levels and then decline.

Minister Jim Flaherty tightened mortgage rules for a fourth time last year, concerned that an overbuilding of condos could lead to sharp price declines. Former Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney identified record household debt as the biggest domestic risk to the economy.

However, our low interest rate environment has kept any bubbles or sharp corrections in check.  Now, the impact of Flaherty’s changes seems to be fading.

Households that put their purchase decisions on hold because of the stricter deadlines are now becoming more active. The latest data from Statistics Canada show that the number of homes changing hands is relatively steady, after a period of steep year-over-year sales declines. Even condo developers, who scaled back their activity, seem to be jumping back in. 

Even the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) has updated its forecast for home sales activity. May's sales were up 3.6 percent from April, a sign of momentum and the largest month-over-month increase in almost two and a half years. However, affordability may continue to be an issue as home prices tick upwards.

Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist with CIBC predicts that prices will go down in the next year or two, but not by much. “Prices have held up so far because, as demand has fallen, so has the number of homeowners listing their properties for sale, Tal said in an interview with the Globe be and Mail. “I do not see smoke. I see a boring, slow process over five to seven years that will take fundamentals and prices back in line.”

All the signs point a recovery in the housing market and consumers are deciding to move forward with their purchase intentions. It’s a great time to discuss options with your mortgage professional who can help you navigate the waters of interest rates and mortgage products to find something that fits your financial goals.