Coronavirus could push mortgage rates to all-time lows

Investors flee to safe haven of bonds after coronavirus tally zooms past SARS

The death toll from the coronavirus already has passed Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, that bruised the world’s economy in 2003.

Back then, China accounted for about 4% of global GDP. Today, the world’s most populous nation accounts for about 17%.

That’s making investors around the world anxious, and when they get anxious they tend to sell off stocks and seek the safe haven of U.S. bonds. An increase in competition for bonds means investors, including the people who buy mortgage-backed bonds, have to take lower yields. That translates into lower mortgage rates.

Pandemics are terrible things for humans to experience, and already more than 490 people have died in China. Since we can’t control that, we’re left to analyze potential economic impacts, which will be major in the mortgage sector.

The panic spurred by the new pandemic could shave as much as 20 basis points off mortgage rates that already are near three-year lows, said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.

That would put rates at or below the all-time low of 3.31% seen in November of 2012, as measured by Freddie Mac.

“The low mortgage rates are already providing a tailwind for the housing market, and if they go lower, that’s going to increase,” he said.

Of course, much is unknown in these early days of coronavirus. More than 24,000 people have been infected in China, according to government data. That’s worse than the 5,327 infections in China during the SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2003.

China’s health minister, Ma Xiaowei, recently told reporters there is evidence the virus has already mutated into a stronger variation that is able to spread more easily among humans.

China’s response hasn’t been perfect, but it’s been more nimble and transparent than the early days of SARS. The government quickly initiated a lockdown of Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the virus first started spreading.

Wuhan now has a new 1,000-bed hospital to treat coronavirus patients built by the government in about 10 days, using an army of construction vehicles and about 7,000 workers. It started accepting new patients on Monday.

“Our baseline assumption is that the aggressive response from the authorities in China and elsewhere will bring the rate of new infections down sharply by the end of Q1,” Goldman Sachs economists said in a report to clients on Monday. “The near-term risks to both our growth and monetary policy views are clearly on the downside until the outbreak is contained.”

The reference to monetary policy means the Federal Reserve, the world’s most powerful central bank. While most economists have been predicting the Fed would stay on the sidelines during 2020, in part to avoid being seen as having an impact in the presidential election, those forecasts were made before coronavirus became a pandemic.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell addressed the coronavirus outbreak last week during a question and answer period following a central bank meeting that left its benchmark rate unchanged.

“We are very carefully monitoring the situation,” Powell said. “There will clearly be implications at least in the near term for Chinese output,” that could spill beyond the nation, he said.

He added: “Uncertainties about the outlook remain,” citing coronavirus as one of those risks.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled almost 4% during January’s second half as coronavirus fears spread. It’s recovered some of that ground since then.

“We were on this powerful bull run in the U.S. stock markets and it got stopped in its track with this new virus,” said Moody’s Zandi. “China is important to the global economy – much more important than when SARS hit.”

In addition to China being a bigger player in the global economy, U.S. supply chains are more entwined with China today than in the early 2000s, Wells Fargo economists said in a report to clients on Monday. The global hit to the world’s economy from SARS was about $40 billion, the bank said.

“Upon the initial onset of a new coronavirus out of China, the SARS outbreak of 2003 served as a good starting point for the potential economic impact of the virus,” the report said. “The virus and possible economic impact, however, is quickly growing in scope. The number of cases for the new virus, officially deemed 2019-nCoV, is now more than double the cases of SARS. But beyond the human toll, a number of factors make the current outbreak likely to be more damaging to the U.S. economy.”

It may even renew concerns of a recession, defined by economists as two consecutive quarters of GDP contraction.

“The outbreak of the 2019-nCoV coronavirus in central China has sparked concerns that an already fragile global economy could tilt even closer to a recession,” the Wells Fargo report said.

The long-term impact on the U.S economy from past epidemics like SARS have only been modest, former Fed Chairman Janet Yellen said during a Feb. 4 talk at George Washington University.

“Longer-term, SARS seems to have relatively little influence, and I think many observers are hoping that will be true this time,” she said.

However, it’s too early to tell, she said.

“There remains an enormous amount of uncertainty about what will happen with the coronavirus and whether it will be contained,” Yellen said.

Nomura, a Japanese financial holding company, was one of the few economic forecasters putting weight behind a best-case scenario.

“The market has begun to consider the possibility that the novel coronavirus has passed the panic stage and that the situation may even be winding down,” the company said in a report. “Leaving aside the latter possibility for now, we think that if consensus grows around this former view, bond yields could bottom out in the U.S., where this issue was first priced in.”

In other words, the pandemic’s downward pressure on bond yields, and mortgage rates, may be tapering.

The report contained a caveat, though.

“The new coronavirus is still spreading,” it said.

Meaning, if it’s not contained, all bets are off.

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