Why Aren’t Mortgage Rates Lower?

Even though mortgage rates are near all-time lows, many are looking at the benchmark 10-year Treasury yield and asking why mortgage rates are not even lower. Even though the 10 year Treasury yield (dark blue line) has fallen off a cliff, the average 30 year mortgage rate (light blue line) has remained stubbornly high. The difference between the two rates can be visualized in the lower panel. What gives?

Source: Bloomberg, 3.6.2020

There are several reasons for the difference in rates, which are illustrated in the chart below:

  1. Mortgage-backed securities (MBS) are not Treasury bonds. Yes, many MBS are backed by the federal government or by federally-backed Government-Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), but MBS are structured differently. One important distinction is that MBS can be “called” by the borrower and repaid early at par, which is typically done by refinancing the existing mortgage with a new mortgage at a lower rate. Thus, MBS yields (green line) are typically higher than Treasury yields (pink line) and they have not kept pace with the decline in Treasury yields in 2020 (MBS yields down about 1% YTD vs a roughly 1.5% decline in the 10 year Treasury yield YTD).
  2. The GSEs charge fees for securitizing and providing a federal backstop to MBS investors (these costs are why the white line is at a premium to the green line).
  3. Lenders need to generate a profit, so they add a spread on top of the rate that they commit to the GSEs. As of March 2020, lenders are reportedly at capacity for new loans, so there is no incentive for lenders to lower the rates offered to borrowers (even if the wholesale rates have declined). The red line represents the average 30-year mortgage rate.
Source: Bloomberg, 3.9.2020

The above only applies to government- and GSE-backed loans, known as “conforming” or “agency” mortgages. Non-agency mortgage rates are driven much more by investor risk appetite than the above factors.

Finding Bottoms

Predicting how equities will move is usually a waste of time. However, every few years we see extreme price declines that are often followed by massive rallies (much like bungee jumping), which are sometimes short-lived bounces (like 2015) and sometimes the beginning of multi-year rallies (like 2011). For investors who have cash to allocate or want to lever up when the odds are favorable, identifying these turning points may be worthwhile. When market declines get going, I monitor to the following categories of indicators to find tradable bottoms.

Implied Volatility

Implied volatility is a rough measure of how much investors are paying for protection. The headline benchmark is the VIX (first chart below), which measures the 30 day implied volatility of the S&P 500 index. We can look at the implied volatility of different time horizons, different indices (or ETFs or individual stocks), and even the volatility of implied volatility (second chart below).

VIX as of 2/28/2020
VVIX as of 2.28.2020

Credit Spreads

Credit spreads are an indication of how much yield investors demand. When markets are calm and perceived risk is low, credit spreads are low. When there is turbulence in markets and perceived risk is high, credit spreads widen. Although most useful in fixed-income markets, credit spreads can used as a rough proxy to evaluate fear in many asset classes.

Corporate Spreads at of 2.28.2020

Oscillators

Many oscillating indicators are based on some combination of price, time, volume, number of securities, and so on. One of the most commonly used oscillators is the Relative Strength Index (RSI) (first chart below). Another popular one is the McClellan Oscillator (second chart below).

RSI (14D) for SPX as of 2.28.2020
McClellan Oscillator as of 2.28.2020

Practical Considerations

I don’t recommend market timing to most investors, but for those who have cash to invest or who don’t mind constantly monitoring the market and taking some risk, below are some practical considerations:

  • Price declines often reverse before some (or even any) indicators hit extreme levels and many indicators may not corroborate one another. Respect the weight of the evidence.
  • Investors may nail the exact bottom every now and then, but it is more common to be a little bit early or a little bit late. It’s okay.
  • Extreme readings do not have to mean revert. I personally like to see big reversals in implied vol, spreads, and prices (!) before buying in size. I may average into positions once extreme levels are reached, but will accelerate purchases after a reversal has gone on for 2-3 days (as I rarely trust a bounce before 1-2 days has gone by).
  • There may not be a V-shaped bounce or recovery. In 2011, the market declined and then bounced around for months before rallying (for years!). Investors should not fixate on a particular scenario, but be prepared for anything.
  • Investors should do their own homework, define their own risk tolerance, and use the tools that work best for them and the environment.

This post is not a commentary on the recent market volatility, but hopefully a reference for this and future selloffs.

The Mexican Fisherman

The famous “Mexican Fisherman” story is at least fifty years old, but it is a timeless tale that is both revealing and enlightening. Below is one version of the story:

An American investment banker was taking a much-needed vacation in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. The boat had several large, fresh fish in it.

The investment banker was impressed by the quality of the fish and asked the Mexican how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.” The banker then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican fisherman replied he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman replied, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos: I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The investment banker scoffed, “I am an Ivy League MBA, and I could help you. You could spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats until eventually you would have a whole fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to the middleman you could sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You could control the product, processing and distribution.”

Then he added, “Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City where you would run your growing enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15–20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You could make millions.”

“Millions, señor? Then what?”

To which the investment banker replied, “Then you would retire. You could move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

(This story was originally written by Heinrich Böll, although Tim Ferriss published the above adapted version which can be found across the internet.)