By Allan Chernoff August 9, 2011: 7:35 AM ET
New York (CNNMoney) — At least one fear was not realized amid Monday’s meltdown: the concern that mortgage rates would immediately shoot higher in response to Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored entities that are the 800-pound gorillas of the mortgage market.
In fact, the initial response to Fannie and Freddie getting cut to AA+ from AAA was precisely the opposite. Mortgage rates were poised to continue declining.
HSH Associates, which surveys lenders, quoted the average 30-year fixed rate mortgage at 4.44% Monday. “We expect to see rates go into the 4.30’s by noon tomorrow,” said Keith Gumbinger, of HSH Associates.
Mortgage rates are set off of the interest rates on U.S. Treasury notes and bonds. Even though Standard & Poor’s pulled its AAA rating of the United States Friday night, investors still rushed into U.S. Treasury securities Monday as a safe haven, believing more in the “full faith and credit of the United States” than in the opinion of Standard & Poor’s credit analysts. As investors snapped up Treasury notes and bonds they pushed down interest rates on those securities, which move inversely to prices.
Late Monday afternoon, the 10-year Treasury note traded at a yield of 2.34%, down from 2.56% on Friday and 3% just two weeks ago, a huge move. That 10-year yield is the benchmark used to set 30-year fixed mortgages.
“The flight to quality effect is dominating,” said Walt Schmidt, senior vice president of FTN Financial Capital Markets. “The net effect is lower mortgage rates.”
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now 80%-owned by the U.S. government after receiving more than $150-billion in federal bailout funds, purchase bundles of mortgages from banks, providing lenders with fresh cash to make new loans. Fannie and Freddie then package those mortgages into securities that are sold to investors, most of which went sour during the financial crisis.
Indeed, on Monday investors demanded slightly higher interest rates for such mortgage-backed securities, increasing the difference- or spread- between mortgage securities and Treasuries. But that increased spread, which normally would result in higher mortgage rates, was more than made up for by the drop in Treasury security yields.
“That flight to safety is completely overshadowing any increase in rates that the downgrade might have brought,” said Gumbinger of HSH Associates.
Auto loan rates may also slide lower since they too are tied to Treasury yields. The yield on 3-year Treasury notes dipped Monday to .45%, which is likely to pressure down 48-month auto loan rates. The national average auto loan rate was 5.6% Monday, according to bankrate.com.
Analysts warn the drop in interest rates may not last. If investment flows were to move back into stocks and out of bonds, interest rates on Treasury securities, and consequently mortgages, would rise.
“Over the long-term, if the U.S. has to pay more in interest rates, consumer rates will likely go up,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com.
For now, lower mortgage rates may offer only limited benefits to American consumers. Banks’ lending standards have been tough recently, and consumers need the wherewithal to qualify for loans. That appears increasingly difficult as the economy continues to sputter.