What Drives Loan Rates?
Supply and Demand.
Now that I've given the short answer, it's time to explain the macro factors behind interest rate variations. But I'm going to keep referring to those first three words. It is a tradeoff between the supply of money and demand for it.
The most obvious thing influencing loan rates is inflation. This is a general environmental factor. If the inflation rate is higher, then other factors being equal, there will be fewer people willing to lend at a given rate, and more people willing to borrow. Who wouldn't want to borrow money if the money you have to pay back is actually worth less than they money you borrowed? All loans are priced such that a given inflation is part of the background assumptions of making it. If inflation is 4 percent, someone lending money at seven is making an effective 3 percent. If inflation is ten percent, they are losing that selfsame three percent. Which scenario would you prefer to loan money in? Which scenario would you prefer to borrow money in?
On the other hand, when inflation is high, loan rates usually rise to compensate. When the prime rate is twenty-one percent, that means that a business borrower has to make a minimum of twenty-one percent on the money just to break even. That's if they're a prime customer. Making twenty one percent is tough. The reason you borrowed ("rented") the money was because you have a use for it to make money. There's a lot fewer opportunities that make enough over twenty-one percent to make them worthwhile, than there are opportunities making enough over seven. This is one reason why inflation is a Bad Thing.
What alternatives exist is a major factor on the supply side, as well. If you absolutely must invest your money in US Government securities, that's where you're going to invest, and since you're increasing the supply of money to the treasury, the price is less. Supply and Demand. This is one of the many reasons why Congress' handling of the trust fund is a national disgrace. If they were private trustees, they would be help liable for not investing it where the best returns are. If, however, you think that stocks are looking more attractive now, that means that the supply of money for loans will shrink by whatever dollars you move out, and the rates will rise. The effect for any one person is small, but there are a lot of people in the market. In aggregate, it's many trillions of dollars. Supply and demand.
Savings rates means a lot, also. When there is a lot of new money coming available in the borrowers market that money is going to be cheaper to borrow, in the form of lower interest rates. This is partially why rates went down throughout 2002, and stayed down into 2003, and 2004. People who had been burned in stocks wanted nice "safe" mortgage bonds. When there is comparatively little new money coming into the market, the only source becomes old loans being paid off. Negative savings or negative investments in the bond market means that what money is coming off older loans is at least partially being used to fund the withdrawals. Competition for money gets fierce, and price - by which I mean interest rate - rises. Supply and Demand.
Competition for money is also a part of the demand side. When the government needs to borrow a lot, for instance, that increases the competition. Even on the scale of our capital markets, whether the government is breaking even or needs to borrow the odd $100 billion has a real and noticeable effect When they need to borrow $400 billion, you can bet it'll raise the cost of money. The government doesn't care, and the bureaucrats running the treasury have been told to get this money. They will do their jobs and get the money, whether it costs 4 percent, 14, or 24. Every time competition from the government drives up rates, a certain number of borrowers whose profit margin on the loan was likely to be marginal will drop out of the auction. But government spending rarely grows the tax base. It's those corporations and small businesses investing in future opportunities that grow the tax base, and they are the ones dropping out of the auctions as money gets more expensive. This is why government deficits are a Bad Thing. Supply and Demand.
The desirability of the alternatives is another factor on the demand side, as well. There's more than one way to make money for most. If it become prohibitively expensive to borrow (bonds), sell part ownership instead (stock). There is a point at which even the most die-hard sole proprietor needs the money, and just can't afford it as opposed to selling some stock to new investors. This can dilute earnings, and cause you to lose control of the company (there were multiple reasons why the high inflation period of the seventies and eighties was followed by the era of the corporate raider, but that's one part), but better to dilute your share of the pool by ten percent while increasing the size of the pool by fifteen. That is a net win, while borrowing the money at twenty-something percent is likely not.
Now, let us consider the money supply here in this country, and thence the state of likely interest rates. We have increased government borrowing. We have the social security trust putting decreasing amounts of money into the government. We have a national savings rate that's negative (and it is the overall rate, not just working adults that we're concerned with, here). More and more people are becoming comfortable with foreign investment. And mortgage bonds are looking jittery right now, with foreclosures up. Supply and Demand, remember?
Therefore, in my judgement, we are likely to see continued raises in the interest rate for some time. If you're on a short term loan that is likely to adjust in the next couple of years, the time to refinance is now, unless you're planning to sell before it adjusts. And if you had asked me a year ago if I'd ever be recommending thirty year fixed rate loans, I would have said, "Not likely". I'm recommending them now. When it's the same rate or higher to get a 5/1 ARM, there is no reason not to choose a thirty year fixed rate loan instead.
(If, on the other hand, you have a long term fixed rate loan, stay put. Once you've actually got the loan funded, they can't just draw the money back unless you do something like fraud or default. Even if you go upside down on your loan for a while, if you're already in a fixed rate loan, that's okay. The market price of the home only matters at loan time and at sales time. If you don't need a loan and you don't plan on selling, why should you care? Note to the young: home prices will rise again.)
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