The Longer-Term Impact of Sustained Rate Increases
Even if the immediate impact of mortgage rate spikes is small – aside from the huge effect on refinancing – shouldn’t sustained rate increases should depress housing activity? Again, recent history tells a more complicated story. Since 1999, mortgage purchase applications and all measures of sales activity – NAR pending home sales, NAR existing home sales, and Census new home sales – have actually been higher when mortgage rates were higher. Sales prices were also the same level or higher (depending on the sales price index) when mortgage rates were higher compared to periods of lower rates. Of all the measures of housing activity, only refinancing applications were lower during periods of higher mortgage rates.
Here’s the missing piece of the puzzle: over the past decade and a half, mortgage rates have been higher when the economy was doing better. Since 1999, the correlation between the monthly unemployment rate – a good, if imperfect, measure of how the economy is doing overall – and the 30-year fixed rate was -0.8, making it a very strong relationship.
Furthermore, every measure of housing activity (except refinancing activity) improved when the overall economy did better. That means that a stronger economy is associated with BOTH higher mortgage rates AND more sales, higher home prices, and more home-purchase mortgage applications. That’s why these measures of housing activity go up when mortgage rates are higher.
If we statistically remove the effect of changes in the overall economy (by including the unemployment rate as a control in a simple statistical regression), then we see exactly what we’d expect: mortgage applications, sales, and home prices are all lower when mortgage rates are higher. In other words: all else equal, higher mortgage rates do depress housing demand.