Thursday, January 22, 2015

No panic necessary over interest rate increases

(Blogger's note: To everyone's surprise, the BoC lowered the interest rate on Tuesday, January 21 to .75%. The impact if that is yet to be seen and will be addressed in another blog. This blog addresses the two types of interest rates and what consumers should understand about them.)

Interest rates have once again become a hot topic in the media. Just prior to oil prices nose diving, the Bank of Canada (BoC) hinted that the overnight rate would likely start rising in 2015. Of course, the media had a heyday with headlines of how rising rates will affect affordability for homeowners and talk of “bubbles” started to emerge…again. (See Blogger's note above)

It’s important to understand which interest rate the media is discussing because there are two very different types of rate – fixed and variable – and both rates are determined by very different criteria.

The rate making most of the headlines is the prime rate. The prime interest rate, which the Bank of Canada (BoC) controls, is what determines variable interest rates.  The focus of the BoC is on stimulating the economy and keeping inflation in check. The best way to stimulate the economy is to get people to spend money, so keeping interest rates low is beneficial.  Until oil prices starting tumbling, the economy was recovering and starting to grow and the BoC started talking about raising rates.

The BoC rate is currently at .75% -- this is the borrowing rate for lenders. The Bank’s prime interest rate is 3%. Variable rate mortgages are based on the BoC rate. When rates do rise, it is usually in small increments and over time will start to add to the amount consumers pay for credit facilities like lines of credit, overdrafts and variable-rate mortgages. In today’s mortgage market, five-year variable-rate mortgages are available in the prime minus 0.50% to prime minus 0.70% range.  Even with potential incremental rises in the prime rate, these discounted rates, are still attractive.

There are many factors that contribute to rising interest rates. Since the economy was in recovery, it only made sense the BoC would start raising the rate. But lower oil prices may have put a hold on that decision. The BoC has already expressed concern about the impact of sharply lower oil prices on the economy, and is likely to be more cautious about when to start increasing rates. As we have seen, the BoC lowered the rate.

Fixed rates, on the other hand, are at historic lows and it looks as if they will stay low for awhile. Fixed rates are based on bond markets, independent of what’s happening with the prime rate. The Bond market, like all markets, fluctuates daily. Lower oil prices and market volatility is exerting downward pressure on bond yields and fixed mortgage rates. Today, five-year fixed mortgage rates are as low at 2.79% to 2.99%

Here’s a closer look at bond markets:

* Bond yields are set like many other prices - by the forces of competition between supply and demand
• If there are more investors wanting to buy bonds, as is often the case when they sell equities, bond yields tend to drop
• Financial Institutions use the spread between interest charged to borrowers and paid to investors to cover their costs and generate some profit

With all the insecurity in the market today, investors are buying bonds and yields continue to drop and are now below 1.10%.

So does this mean fixed rates will drop? Some experts think so. However, John Bordignon, EVP for Paradigm Quest doesn’t think so. “While I believe fixed rates will remain stable, there is still volatility in the market and lenders are still cautious about lowering the fixed rates,” he said.

Bordignon doesn’t rule out the occasional promotional fixed rate discount, but because the costs of mortgages have gone up, lenders are not likely to tighten the spreads.

The choice of opting for a fixed rate versus a variable rate is ultimately a personal decision. Each situation is unique and its best to discuss the options with a mortgage professional. But when the headlines are screaming doom and gloom for interest rates, make sure to understand what type of interest rate they’re referring to.