Mortgage Rates Climb Sharply After Retail Sales Report

Retail Sales 2010-2012The U.S. economy is expanding, fueled by a renewed consumer optimism and increased consumer spending.

As reported by the Census Bureau, Retail Sales in February, excluding cars and auto parts, rose 1 percent to $335 billion as 11 of 13 retail sectors showed improvement last month.

February markets the 19th time in twenty months that U.S. Retail Sales increased on a month-over-month basis.

Unfortunately, what’s good for the economy may be bad for home buyers and mortgage rate shoppers. Home affordability is expected to worsen as the U.S. economy improves.

The connection between Retail Sales and home affordability is indirect, but noteworthy — especially given today’s broader market conditions.

First, let’s talk about affordability.

Last week, the National Association of REALTORS® released its monthly Housing Affordability Index, showing that homes are more affordable to everyday home buyers than at any time in recorded history. For buyers with median earnings buying median-priced homes, monthly payments now comprise just 12.1% of the monthly household income.

The real estate trade group considers 25% to be the benchmark for home affordability. Today’s payment levels are less than half of that.

The reasons why today’s homes are so affordable are three-fold :

  1. Home prices remain relatively low as compared to peak pricing
  2. Fixed- and adjustable-rate mortgage rates remain near all-time lows
  3. Average earnings are increasing nationwide

Rising Retail Sales, however, can derail the trend. This is because Retail Sales measures consumer spending and consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of the U.S. economy. As the economy expands, the forces that combined to raise home affordability so high begin to wane. 

First, in a recovering economy, mortgage rates tend to rise and, throughout 2012 and 2013, home prices are expected do the same. Second, as average earnings increase, it can spur inflation which is bad for mortgage rates, too. 

Home affordability is at all-time highs today. But, in part because of February’s Retail Sales data, we should not expect these levels to last. Mortgage rates are higher by 1/4 percent since the Retail Sales data was released — roughly $16 per $100,000 borrowed — and are expected to rise more throughout the spring home purchase season.

Retail Sales are up 6 percent from a year ago.

With Retail Sales And Consumer Confidence Rising, Home Prices Are Expected To Follow

Consumer Confidence vs Retail Sales (2009-2012)

The U.S. economy continues to show signs of a rebound.

According to the Census Bureau, Retail Sales climbed to $329 billion last month on a seasonally-adjusted basis, excluding automobiles. January’s data marks the 18th time in 19 months that Retail Sales rose, a run that’s increased total sales receipts by 11 percent.

This is big news because Retail Sales accounts for close to 70% of the U.S. economy.

In addition, consumer confidence is rising.

In a separate, joint report from the University of Michigan and Thompson Reuters, it was shown that consumer attitudes toward the economy and the future are improving, primarily the result of recent job gains.  

The Survey of Consumers posted its highest value in 12 months.

It is not a coincidence that Retail Sales and consumer confidence both made multi-month highs — the readings are more than loosely linked. As consumers feel more confident about the economy and their personal prospects for the future, they’re more likely to spend money on goods and services, which leads to an increase in consumer spending.

For the housing market, the ramifications are two-fold.

First, from the financing side, an expanding economy is linked to rising mortgage rates. This is because Wall Street tends to chase risk in a growth economy and the bond market offers little in the way of risk. As demand for bonds drops, then, mortgage rates rise.

Second, rising consumer confidence can lead home values higher, too.

Confident consumers are more likely than fearful ones to become home buyers. They’re more likely to stop renting and start buying; more likely to list their home and “move-up” to something bigger; more likely to “take the next step”.

So, as more buyers enter the market at a time when the national home supply is shrinking, the supply-demand balance in housing is shifting toward the sellers. This creates price pressures and should lead to higher home valuations.

If you have plans to buy a home in 2012, the best time to buy may be now. Today’s mortgage rates are low and so are the home prices — a combination that’s unlikely to last.

Home Affordability Set To Worsen On Thursday’s Retail Sales Data

Retail Sales Growth (2008-2011)

Consumer spending continues to rise nationwide, fueled by jobs growth and a rosier outlook for the U.S. economy. Unfortunately for mortgage rate shoppers |*STATE in % STATE**|, it may also lead to higher mortgage rates later this week.

Thursday morning, the Census Bureau will release its U.S. Retail Sales data for December. The report is expected to show an 18th consecutive monthly increase, with analysts projecting sales volume higher by 0.4 percent from November.

This would be double the increase from last month, which saw a 0.2 percent increase in Retail Sales.

The Retail Sales report tallies receipts collected by retail and food-service stores nationwide. When the sum of these receipts rise, it puts pressure on mortgage rates to do the same. The connection is straight-forward.

Retail Sales are the largest part of “consumer spending” and consumer spending accounts for the majority of the U.S. economy — up to 70 percent, by some estimates.

As the economy goes, so go mortgage rates.

Remember: today’s ultra-low mortgage rates have been partially fueled by weak economies — both domestic and abroad — going back 4 years. Stock markets have sold off as economies have faltered worldwide, leading investors to seek refuge in the relative safety of U.S.-backed mortgage bond market. The new-found demand for mortgage-backed bonds has helped drop mortgage rates to levels never seen in history.

When economic recovery is apparent, therefore, we should expect a mortgage rate reversal, and should expect for it to happen quickly. Stock markets should rise; bond markets should fall. Mortgage rates will climb. Rate shoppers will lose.

Last week’s strong jobs report sparked hope for the U.S. economy. If Thursday Retail Sales data reveals similar strength, the risk in “floating” your mortgage rate may be too great. The safer play is to lock your rate today.

The Retail Sales report will be released at 8:30 AM ET.