Good news about the economy is bad news for mortgage rates

    In the backwards world of bonds and mortgages, in which good news is bad, good news pushed up long-term rates this week.

    U.S. data may encourage the Fed to accelerate the end of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) at its meeting next week, possibly, maybe, perhaps, tentatively pre-hinting a rate hike by removing “for a considerable period” from its post-meeting statement.

    Container ships loading and unloading in Singapore. Banana Republic images / Shutterstock.com.
    Container ships loading and unloading in Singapore. Banana Republic images /Shutterstock.com.

    Threats of war have receded. Czar Vladimir will continue to make trouble, but Russian troops are not headed for Kiev, instead pulling out of Ukraine after preserving the pretense of separatist rebellion.

    ISIS? More wise old heads say this eighth-century mob is a local threat in a locality beyond redemption. Newtonian physics are in play: the more dangerous either of these bad actors, the more resistance will gather against them.

    U.S. economic data have been seen for years through two lenses. Worrywarts fear that we are in a protracted period of stagnation defiant of remedy. Optimists have thought recovery is protracted but underway.

    The optimists had a good week. Retail sales picked up 0.6 percent in August and both July and June were revised up. Auto sales are driving that show, pushed way ahead of natural demand by trash credit and giveaway discounts. But the NFIB survey of small business is also in a steady uptrend, annoying to its far-right, anti-government chief economist, who’s fighting his own data.

    Behind that happy U.S. foreground lies the Fed and the world, and that background scenery is without precedent.

    I don’t know of a time in the modern era when U.S. conditions have been so different from the rest of the world, the U.K. excepted. As healthy as the U.S. is becoming — and stable, too, because of extraordinary efforts by the Fed to de-risk the financial system — the rest of the world is deteriorating and unstable.

    Just this week Brazil’s credit was downgraded near junk, caught in slowdown, inflation and weak demand for exports. Venezuela has joined Argentina stumbling toward default.

    Japan’s GDP contracted at a 7.1 percent pace in the second quarter, fading under the weight of a national sales tax taken from 5 percent to 8 percent to cut its deficit (50 percent of spending); the slide so bad that new stimulus spending is under discussion. A bad trap, no evident escape from the austerity-stimulus circle. Europe is in a similar situation.

    The benefits to us, big ones, flow through currencies and weakening foreign demand for commodities. The euro touched $1.40 in April, now $1.29; the yen one year ago traded 96 to the buck, now 107. A similar devaluation by China would mightily annoy the U.S. Last month’s China trade surplus with the U.S.: $49 billion. But China trades too much with Japan and Europe to tolerate an appreciating yuan versus euro and yen.

    Everything we import, oil to sneakers, will tend to get cheaper. In dollar terms oil is already down 10 percent, and gasoline prices are falling. Our trade deficit will rise, and must be financed, but money is cheap thanks to the panicked policies at the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, and intermittently the People’s Bank of China. Our exports become more expensive, but in total are only about 12 percent of our economy (over 50 percent in Germany).

    In this circumstance it is impossible for inflation to rise to dangerous ground. The kindling is soaking wet, and the match — rising wages — nowhere in sight.

    So why would the Fed consider a rate warning next week? There are reasons for the Fed to act other than prices.

    In the fall of 2008 the Fed embarked on a completely unprecedented rescue, which took hold in just a few months, the means an explicit intention to cause financial assets and homes to rise in value. Worked, too!

    Now the Fed must be concerned that these assets not bubble, not be vulnerable to more significant tightening in a real recovery.

    10-year Treasury rates

    10-year_Ts_Barnes_sept_12_2014

    Rates on 10-year Treasury notes, going back a year. A lot of support between here and 3 percent. Too many got too-long bonds too soon, and the exit got crowded this week.

    Hunch: Long-term rates are not headed far. The spread to foreign equivalents is too wide, U.S. bonds too attractive, the U.S. deficit under control.

    Another good news hunch. China has sent an infantry battalion to Sudan as UN peacekeepers, the first-ever unit so large. To protect its own people and business venture there, but Chinese engagement is a hopeful thing.

    Lou Barnes is a mortgage broker based in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at lbarnes@pmglending.com.

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