Are record-low interest rates masking high-cost mortgage lending?

Are record-low interest rates masking high-cost mortgage lending?

Five leading economists weigh in and the answer may surprise you

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Existing Home Sales Slump in March

Trouble in the U.S. housing market continued unabated last month, as sales of existing homes recorded their seventh decline in eight months, and sales volume in March was the weakest for the month in one decade. Existing home purchases fell 2.0 percent to a seasonally-adjusted rate of 4.93 million units last month, according to statistics released Wednesday by the National Association of Realtors; March's rate of sales is 19.3 percent below year-ago levels, and is the worst March since 1998. A drop in single-family home sales more than offset condo sales, the NAR said, with single-family home sales falling 2.7 percent to 4.35 million in March, seasonally-adjusted. Median single-family home prices fell a sharp 8.3 percent from year-ago levels to $198,200. Separate data released Tuesday by the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight found that conforming housing prices were off a more moderated 2.4 percent annually during February. The NAR's data tracks pricing trends outside of the conforming market, meaning the group's pricing trends are likely to be more volatile during market downturns. From Bloomberg:
"The housing downturn continues in full swing," Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com in West Chester, Pennsylvania, said in an interview with Bloomberg Radio. "Potential home buyers are sitting on the sidelines. They do sense that prices are going to go down further. We're still a good six, 12 months away before we see buyers come in."
The NAR said that inventory rose 1 percent at the end of March to 4.6 million existing homes for sale -- a clear sign that pressures in the housing market have not yet begun to abate. Most economists look to inventory levels as a leading indicator for the health of the nation's housing markets, and increasing inventory while sales continue to decline portends a rough selling season ahead. March is traditionally the start of the spring selling season, and inventories typically climb throughout the spring and into the summer months. With inventories already high on a historical basis -- March inventory is the highest level in at least 7 years -- many industry pundits think it will be tough for housing to rebound before the end of this year. The NAR's Lawrence Yun, clearly concerned that housing may be facing a long summer ahead, focused his attention on the effect of monetary policy on mortgage rates -- and, indirectly, buyer interest. "With elevated inflation, the Federal Reserve should be extra careful about further rate cuts," he said. "Mortgage interest rates, which do not move directly with Fed funds rates, may rise measurably and hurt the housing recovery if inflation gets out of hand."

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