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After a decade of relative stability in mortgage rates, the last few years have seen unprecedented volatility and changes in mortgage rates. Interest rates are often a key concern for real estate investors, as mortgages are often the difference between a cash-flowing deal and a dud.  

Since spring 2022, when the Federal Reserve embarked on its latest rate-hiking cycle, interest rates on the most popular loans for real estate investors, DSCR loans (part of the non-QM loans category), have moved at unprecedented rates. Many months of rates moving at most a few basis points a week morphed into dramatic, massive movements—with bigger changes sometimes happening in one day than had occurred in quarters or years prior.

Real estate investors navigating the challenging market of 2024—with mortgage rates still at elevated levels—are at an advantage when they can lock in financing terms or plan purchases while DSCR loan rates are favorable. But figuring out what to look for and what moves mortgage markets can be challenging.  

We’ll help pull back the curtain a bit on the biggest drivers of mortgage rates, as well as how investors can watch the market like a financial expert does.

Bond Market Concepts: What Determines Mortgage Rates?

In the United States in 2024, mortgage rates are generally tied to the overall bond market, as most residential mortgages, including conventional qualifying mortgages for owner-occupants, residential investment mortgages (DSCR loans), and even other alternative residential mortgages (non-QM), are securitized. This means they are bundled together and turned into bonds, financial instruments that pay out interest (yield) to investors looking for a steady, fixed return. These investors are typically large financial institutions looking for safe, predictable returns, such as pension funds, insurance companies, and banks.

Key concepts to understand in economics and finance are risk and reward. Risk should be thought of neither as good nor bad, but rather always in relation to the associated reward or returns. 

For example, a 10% return (or reward) can be worth the risk if you are investing in a Class A single-family rental in a great market with an A+ tenant, but not worth the risk at all if betting on a 16-seed to make it to the Final Four in March Madness.

Investors in mortgage bonds utilize the risk-and-reward framework when allocating how to invest capital. Mortgage bonds have multiple alternatives they weigh against. As such, one of the biggest drivers of mortgage rates are other options investors have for returns.  

When people refer to the Federal Reserve “setting rates,” they mean the effective federal funds rate or the rate at which banks charge other institutions on an overnight basis. Since banks can earn this yield with essentially zero risk, other alternatives (with risk) would need to provide higher returns. This is why when the Fed hikes or cuts rates, it affects all other sorts of financial instruments.

However, the main benchmark for bonds, including mortgage bonds, is U.S. Treasury bonds, which are issued by the United States federal government. While the current fiscal trajectory of the country certainly has some issues, this is generally referred to in finance as the “risk-free” rate—and the main economic alternative to mortgage bonds.  

One key insight is that conventional mortgage bonds (mortgage-backed securities, or MBS) made up of government-sponsored enterprise (GSE)-backed mortgages are benchmarked with the United States 10-year Treasury bond, while MBS made up of non-QM mortgage loans (including the all-important ones for real estate investors, DSCR loans) are benchmarked with the United States five-year Treasury bond. 

These mortgage bonds trade with a spread, or higher amount of rate/return needed, versus the Treasury bonds to account for the higher risks. Investing in mortgage notes backed by homeowner and real estate investor borrowers is riskier for investors than notes backed by the U.S. federal government. Generally, the spread to account for the higher risk has historically been around 170 basis points (or 1.7%); however, in the last few years, this has ballooned to around 300 basis points (or 3%) amidst lots of volatility.

Without delving too much deeper into the math and financial fixed-income calculations, mortgage bonds generally have yields or returns based on the main alternative for note investors, which are U.S. Treasury bonds. When bonds are sold, these yields go up, meaning investors demand higher returns for the risk. When bonds are bought, yields go down, meaning investors are OK with lower returns.  

This means mortgage lenders will generally move their mortgage rates up and down based on corresponding movements in the Treasury bond market. And the biggest drivers for changes in yields in Treasury bonds are economic data that informs investors’ guesses about future decisions by the Federal Reserve to increase or lower the ultimate benchmark rate: the effective federal funds rate.  

For DSCR loan interest rates, this generally means tracking movements in five-year Treasury bonds (this is the best investor alternative for DSCR loans since the average duration a borrower holds a DSCR loan before selling or refinancing is around five years).

Note on Numbers vs. Expected Numbers

Before diving into the main financial data pieces to follow that move yields, a final, very important financial concept to cover is how the markets interpret data. The key point is that data is typically interpreted as compared to expectations rather than month-over-month or year-over-year numbers.  

Typically, banks, funds, and traders will have an expectation or estimate on key economic data releases, often created through sophisticated, complex financial models. As such, when a number comes in, the most important thing to consider is how it compares to what it was expected to be by the market rather than anything else. 

This is why there can be muted market responses to actual Fed rate hikes, as the central bank often telegraphs its intentions ahead of time, to the point where the change is fully expected/estimated and thus “priced in” ahead of time.

Key Economic Data Releases that Move Mortgage Rates

Here are the key economic data releases that most affect Treasury yields and mortgage rates; understand these and plug them into your calendar, and you will be a mortgage rate magician in no time.

Consumer Price Index (CPI)

For even casual interest rate watchers, it should come as no surprise that the monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) release is key to interest rate movements. CPI measures general inflation for consumers for major individual expenses such as food, gas, shelter, and other basics. A key driver of Fed interest rate policy is to fight the recent elevated inflation that has been plaguing the country since 2021.

CPI is released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) once a month (usually around the midpoint of the following month) at 8:30 a.m. ET. The “headline” number or main number typically seen in media reports, is the percentage change in inflation versus the prior year. So, for example, a release of an “all items index” rise of 3.4% for April 2024 means that prices rose by 3.4% when compared to prices in April 2023.

Remember that while the overall number is important and comparisons to the prior year and prior month are key, the main factor that affects interest rates (and thus, mortgage rates) is the number (percent change year over year) versus expectations. The expectation, in this case, is typically a median number from the models of the major banks.  

Here is an example of the structure of expectations for a CPI release (sometimes called “print”). CPI coming in above estimates generally means that mortgage rates will rise (as this will cause the Federal Reserve to lean toward higher interest rates to fight inflation that’s greater than expected) and vice versa (lower than expected would cause mortgage rates to fall). If mortgage rates come in exactly as estimated by the banks, Treasury yields and mortgage rates will likely not move much.  

If you have ever been confused as to why a big decrease or increase in CPI didn’t seem to move things, this is probably why.

Jobs report

Another key monthly economic data release from the BLS that can greatly affect interest rates is the jobs report, which estimates how many overall jobs (nonfarm payroll employment) were added or subtracted in the prior month, as well as a calculation of the unemployment rate.

In 2024, this report may have overtaken CPI as the biggest market mover, as many financial experts expect the Fed to potentially cut rates if large job losses occur and the unemployment rate spikes, even if inflation had not yet returned to the 2% target.

These reports are typically released on Friday mornings, also at 8:30 a.m. ET, once per month. Like CPI, the most important factor for how it will affect yields and mortgage loan rates is the reported numbers versus estimates (for both change in number of jobs and unemployment rate percentage), rather than comparisons to prior time frames.

Jobless claims

While the CPI report and jobs report are typically the biggest monthly market movers, the release of jobless claims also has a big effect on yields and mortgage rates. This report is weekly, not monthly, and is released every Thursday at 8:30 a.m. ET. It measures the number of both people newly filing for unemployment and continuing claims. Like the previous monthly reports, the market typically reacts to numbers in comparison to estimates.

Producer Price Index (PPI)

The Producer Price Index (PPI) report is similar to CPI; however, it tracks costs (and inflation) for producers, such as product manufacturers or service suppliers. This report is monthly and typically comes out the day following the CPI report. While it can have an effect on yields and mortgage rates if it comes in higher or lower than expectations, it typically has a much smaller effect on yields and rates than the CPI report.

Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE)

The Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) report is another measure of inflation. This one is released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis instead of the Department of Labor. It is typically released about two weeks after the more well-known CPI report. 

While the CPI report is generally more well-known, the PCE Index is becoming the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation. It’s gaining more attention from market watchers and is considered more comprehensive data. This is also a monthly report released at the standard 8:30 a.m. ET time.

Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS)

The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, commonly referred to as the JOLTS report, is another closely watched data release from the BLS that can move rates up and down. This is a monthly report that shows how many job openings are currently posted in the U.S. 

Like other monthly data reports from the BLS, the market reaction to this report is mostly about job openings versus expectations. One quirk of this data release is that it comes out at 9 a.m. ET instead of 8 a.m. ET, like most other reports. This can lead to mortgage market movement a bit later in the morning than people are used to. 

One recently highlighted issue regarding the JOLTS report, however, is that it is truly a survey—reliant on responses from companies. The BLS has highlighted this issue, noting a sharp decline in response rates over the last decade. 

The fact that a lot of this data is now estimated has a lot of market experts calling into question whether this data is reliable—and provides an opening for entrepreneurial people and companies to look for other ways to measure the data.

Fed meetings, minutes, and media interactions

While Federal Reserve meetings are when specific rate changes (or no changes) are announced, by the time the actual announcement happens, markets and rates rarely change too much since the move is generally predicted and priced in. (If you would like to track market expectations of rate changes, the FedWatch tool from the CME Group is extremely useful.)

However, yields and mortgage rates can be greatly changed by Federal Reserve actions—the real drivers are the policy press releases and press conferences (typically scheduled for the early afternoon, a couple of hours after the publication of the decision). There, market traders decipher the statements of the Federal Reserve Chair, as well as answers to questions from the press. Yields can dramatically spike up and down during the press conference.

Additionally, the minutes of the Federal Reserve meetings are usually released a couple of weeks after the date of the decision and release. While the lag between the meeting occurrences and the minute’s release makes much of the data stale, the minute’s releases can indeed move markets, as investors can gain further insight into the conversations among voting members.

An additional driver of rates is the quarterly release of a “dot plot” showing each Fed official’s projection for interest rates for the upcoming couple of years. Since this chart is harder to boil down to a single expectation number like the previously discussed reporting metrics, this rarer release can affect yields, as it provides an infrequent insight into the longer-term rate outlook from Federal Reserve officials.

University of Michigan Survey

As inflation has taken center stage in the last few years in the United States, formerly minor surveys and data releases have increased in importance and their effect on Federal Reserve rate thinking and, thus, mortgage rates. A monthly survey conducted by the University of Michigan that measures consumer sentiment and inflation expectations has affected yields and offered a data point for predicting Federal Reserve actions.

Purchasing Managers Index (PMI)

Another factor starting to gain steam in terms of affecting mortgage rates are various regional Purchasing Managers Index reports, which offer a glimpse into the health of the economy. A sharp downturn in economic metrics (leading to higher unemployment) is seen by most bond market experts as the likely catalyst for the next rate of sharply reduced rates. So when we have seen recent low readings (versus expectations) of some of these types of reports lately, yields and rates have fallen. 

One example of a PMI report is the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index, which determines the health of the manufacturing sector in the Chicago region. To follow these reports, it’s critical to understand how the metric is derived—in this case, there is a score given between 0 and 100, with 50 meaning stable, above 50 equating to expansion, and below 50 indicating a contraction.

Auctions

Large Treasury auctions, or large sales of new Treasury bonds by the United States federal government, have also had an effect on mortgage rates. These large sales can move bonds higher or lower, depending on investor appetite and pricing. 

Unlike most of the other reports that generally come early in the morning, before many mortgage lenders release rates for the day, these typically occur in the middle of the day or afternoon and can be responsible for midday mortgage rate moves.

Final Thoughts

While the bond market and U.S. financial system can be daunting and complex, following changes in DSCR loan rates (rental property mortgage rates), it mostly boils down to future expectations for Federal Reserve rate decisions—which are primarily driven by various economic data reports that measure inflation and the strength of the jobs market.  

When will mortgage rates drop? Nobody knows for sure, but if you are tracking these indicators and start seeing data showing inflation coming in below expectations, with fewer new jobs and more unemployment, a drop in investment property loan interest rates will surely soon follow.

Follow the author of this article, Easy Street Capital Partner Robin Simon, on multiple social platforms, including X and BiggerPockets, for daily market insights as well!

This article is presented by Easy Street Capital

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Easy Street Capital is a private real estate lender headquartered in Austin, Texas, serving real estate investors around the country. Defined by an experienced team and innovative loan programs, Easy Street Capital is the ideal financing partner for real estate investors of all experience levels and specialties. Whether an investor is fixing and flipping, financing a cash-flowing rental, or building ground-up, we have a solution to fit those needs.

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.

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