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Mortgage Rates and Stocks Find Relief as Powell Reinforces Rate Cut Prospects

Economy
0 min read

The housing and stock markets received a welcome boost this week as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell reinforced expectations for interest rate cuts later this year. In his semi-annual monetary policy testimony to Congress, Powell acknowledged that recent data shows inflation is moderating, paving the way for potential rate reductions in 2024.

For homebuyers and prospective sellers who have grappled with soaring mortgage rates over the past year, Powell’s remarks offer a glimmer of hope. Mortgage rates, which are closely tied to the Fed’s benchmark rate, have retreated from their recent highs, dipping below 7% for the first time since mid-February.

According to Mortgage News Daily, the average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage settled at 6.92% on Thursday, while Freddie Mac reported a weekly average of 6.88% for the same loan term. This marks the first contraction in over a month and a significant improvement from the peak of around 7.3% reached in late 2023.

The moderation in mortgage rates has already begun to revive homebuyer demand, as evidenced by a nearly 10% week-over-week increase in mortgage applications. The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) noted that the indicator measuring home purchase applications rose 11%, underscoring the sensitivity of first-time and entry-level homebuyers to even modest rate changes.

“Mortgage applications were up considerably relative to the prior week, which included the President’s Day holiday. Of note, purchase volume — particularly for FHA loans — was up strongly, again showing how sensitive the first-time homebuyer segment is to relatively small changes in the direction of rates,” said Mike Fratantoni, MBA’s chief economist.

This renewed interest from buyers coincides with a much-needed increase in housing inventory. According to Realtor.com, active home listings grew 14.8% year-over-year in February, the fourth consecutive month of annual gains. Crucially, the share of affordable homes priced between $200,000 and $350,000 increased by nearly 21% compared to last year, potentially opening doors for many previously priced-out buyers.

The stock market has also responded positively to Powell’s testimony, interpreting his comments as a reassurance that the central bank remains committed to taming inflation without derailing the economy. Despite a hotter-than-expected inflation report in January, Powell reiterated that rate cuts are likely at some point in 2024, provided that price pressures continue to subside.

Investors cheered this stance, propelling the S&P 500 to new record highs on Thursday. The benchmark index gained nearly 1%, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite surged 1.4%, underscoring the market’s preference for a more dovish monetary policy stance.

However, Powell cautioned that the timing and magnitude of rate cuts remain uncertain, as the Fed seeks to strike a delicate balance between containing inflation and supporting economic growth. “Pinpointing the optimal timing for such a shift has been a challenge,” said Jiayi Xu, Realtor.com’s economist. “Specifically, the risk of a dangerous inflation rebound is looming if rate cuts are made ‘too soon or too much.'”

This ambiguity has contributed to ongoing volatility in both the housing and stock markets, as market participants attempt to gauge the Fed’s next moves. While the prospect of rate cuts has provided relief, concerns remain that the central bank may need to maintain a more hawkish stance if inflationary pressures prove more stubborn than anticipated.

Nevertheless, Powell’s remarks have injected a sense of optimism into the markets, at least temporarily. For homebuyers, the potential for lower mortgage rates could translate to increased affordability and a more favorable environment for purchasing a home. Meanwhile, investors have embraced the possibility of a less aggressive monetary policy stance, driving stocks higher in anticipation of a potential economic soft landing.

As the data continues to unfold, both the housing and stock markets will closely monitor the Fed’s actions and rhetoric. While challenges persist, Powell’s testimony has offered a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel, reigniting hopes for a more balanced and sustainable economic landscape in the months ahead.

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