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Mortgage Rates Still Not Allowed to Return to Normal

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Federal Reserve may increase downward pressure.

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Despite Herculean efforts, the Federal Reserve is losing its battle to keep mortgage rates at all-time lows.

As fear that our financial system is headed for imminent collapse slowly wanes, investors' appetite for risk is coming back. This renewed confidence has helped buoy stocks, and the major equity indices have rallied more than 30% from their March lows. The shift, however, has come at the expense of the Treasury market, which has been in a 7-week slump.

According to Bloomberg, big money managers like Blackrock (BLK) are betting the Fed will step in to support the Treasury market (again), as regulators hope renewed Treasury purchases will push down mortgage rates (again).

Bond prices and yields move in opposite directions. When investor demand falls, so do prices, pushing up yields. And as investors shun the safety -- but relatively low return -- of government-backed debt, the impacts are felt throughout the credit markets. Of concern to the Fed, and what has led Chairman Ben Bernanke to increase Treasury purchases in the past, is the effect this dynamic has on mortgage rates.

A mortgage is nothing more than a long term bond, given to a borrower to purchase a home. So when lenders get fearful they're not being compensated for tying up money for as long as 30 years, they increase rates. Further, as the specter of inflation rises, lenders demand bigger interest payments to keep up with higher prices. In other words, when dollars in the future are worth less than dollars today, banks demand higher payments to make up the difference.

Keeping mortgage rates low has been a cornerstone of Washington's efforts to jump start the flagging housing market. But with rates at the highest level since April, the "smart money" is betting the Fed may return to the Treasury market en masse.

Paradoxically, even as the Fed tries to keep interest rates low -- which are rising in part due to the expectation that higher prices loom in the years ahead -- its actions increase the likelihood of future inflation. Running its printing presses around the clock has consequences, even if Fed officials are loathe to admit it.

Minyanville's Mr. Practical often discusses the fallacy that credit markets are improving. As he points out, only in corners of the market where the government has stepped in to support lending is any so-called "normalcy" returning.

So too in the mortgage market.

Loans backed by Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE) and the Federal Housing Administration account for the lion share of mortgages currently being issued in this country. Aside from the occasional jumbo loan written by banks like JPMorgan (JPM) or Wells Fargo (WFC), government mortgages are the only game in town. Coupled with the Troubled Asset Lending Facility (or TALF), which funnels money into the market for mortgage-backed securities, the home-loan market remains completely dependent on government support.

This is one reason recent "strength" in the housing market will provide transitory. There's a limit on how much government can control markets, as evidenced by mortgage rates that move persistently higher every time the Fed eases its aggressive intervention. Fundamentals, not subsidies, will provide a true floor in prices.

And as banks prepare to unleash a firestorm of foreclosure inventory into the market, fundamentals will remain pointed south, thereby pushing down prices. And as foreclosures continue to infect higher end real-estate markets, these price declines will be felt by a growing -- and more prosperous -- segment of the population.

Mortgage rates, left to their own devices, would be far, far higher without government support. This is the message of the market - one bureaucrats in Washington seem unwilling to learn.
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