The Fed hits the housing market with another economic shock—it won’t be the last
Fed Chair Jerome Powell was crystal clear on Wednesday: The Federal Reserve has transitioned into full-fledged inflation-fighting mode. The goal, Powell says, is to see the 8.5% annual rate of inflation fall back to the Fed’s 2% target rate.
The increasingly hawkish Fed will start by upping the federal funds rate—the interest rate it charges banks—50 basis points this month. That’s the largest single-month hike since 2000. The central bank also said it’ll begin winding down some of its Treasury securities and bond holdings. Those actions should cool consumer demand while reducing money supply in the economy.
These policy moves are also a direct hit to arguably one of inflation’s biggest drivers over the past year: the red-hot U.S. housing market. In the Fed’s eyes, it can’t rein in inflation unless unsustainable home price growth—which is up 19.8% over the past 12 months—decelerates significantly.
In expectation of these policy shifts, financial markets were already driving mortgage rates higher. Back in December, the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate sat at 3.11%. On Thursday, it hit 5.27%—the highest level since 2009. Of course, rising mortgage rates should price out more homebuyers and take some steam out of the housing market. If a borrower took out a $500,000 mortgage at a 3.11% fixed rate, they’d owe a monthly principal and interest payment of $2,138. At a 5.27% rate, that shoots up to $2,767 per month over 30 years.
What do the Fed’s policy moves announced on Wednesday mean for mortgage rates heading forward? Housing economists interviewed by Fortune say it shouldn’t do too much—for now. They believe financial markets have already priced in these moves by the Fed.
“It’s also important to note that additional Fed tightening is already baked into today’s average mortgage rates,” said Odeta Kushi, deputy chief economist at First American, a real estate financial services company. That said, mortgage rates could go well above 5% if the Fed gets even more aggressive in coming months. “If inflation worsens, the Fed may need to be even more aggressive, which may put further upward pressure on mortgage rates.”
Between June and August, the central bank plans to unwind $30 billion in Treasury debt and $18 billion mortgage-backed debt each month. Then in September, the Fed will double the amount of debt it lets expire each month to $60 billion in Treasury debt and $35 billion in mortgage-backed debt. As that debt expires, it could put upward pressure on mortgage rates.
“Whether or not the housing market will be ‘quantitatively uneasy’ with allowing $35 billion in mortgage-backed securities to run off the balance sheet each month will depend on mortgage-backed securities demand, which will dictate whether mortgage rates go up much more,” Kushi tells Fortune.
This economic shock caused by spiking mortgage rates should soften the housing market and see home price growth decelerate. At least that’s according to Logan Mohtashami, lead analyst at HousingWire.
“While we [the housing market] aren’t there yet, the last two weeks have been softer,” Mohtashami tells Fortune. Heading forward, he says, we’ll see a lot more cooling as the impact of higher rates sets in.
On Wednesday, Powell suggested to reporters that this won’t be the last uptick in the federal funds rate. But just how quickly the Fed ups the rate will depend on where inflation goes next. If price growth doesn’t come down quickly, Powell says, there’s a chance the central bank could get even more aggressive even if it means risking a recession. Of course, sticky inflation coupled with a determined Fed would have huge implications for the housing market. Look no further than the inflationary period that took off during the ’70s, which was eventually tamed, but only after years of massive interest rate hikes. In 1981, the average 30-year mortgage rate topped out at over 18%—something that ultimately plunged the U.S. economy and housing market into recession.
Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.