Rising inflation can shrink purchasing power as prices of goods and services increase. This, in turn, can affect interest rates and the cost of borrowing. While the inflation rate doesn’t have a direct impact on mortgage rates, the two do tend to move in tandem.
What does that mean for homebuyers looking for a home loan and for homeowners who want to refinance a mortgage? Simply that as inflation rises, mortgage rates may follow suit.
Understanding the difference between the inflation rate and interest rates, and what affects mortgage rates for different types of home loans, matters in terms of timing.
Inflation Rate vs. Interest Rates
Inflation is defined as a general increase in the overall price of goods and services over time.
The Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, tracks inflation rates and inflation trends using several key metrics, including the Consumer Price Index, to determine how to direct monetary policy.
Interest rates reflect the cost of using someone else’s money. Lenders charge interest to borrowers who take out loans and lines of credit as a premium for the right to use the lender’s money.
So how do inflation rates and interest rates interact?
The Federal Reserve monitors inflation trends as an indicator of what’s happening with the economy as a whole. A target inflation rate of 2% is considered ideal for maintaining a stable economic environment over the long run.
When inflation is on the rise and the economy is in danger of overheating, the Fed may raise interest rates to cool things down.
Higher rates can make borrowing more expensive while also providing more interest to savers. People borrowing less and saving more can have a cooling effect on the economy.
When the economy is slowing down too much, on the other hand, the Fed can lower interest rates to encourage borrowing and spending.
What Affects Mortgage Rates?
Inflation rates don’t have a direct impact on mortgage rates. But there can be indirect effects because of the way inflation influences the economy as a whole.
Mortgage rates are sensitive to economic trends. If the economy is strong and inflation is rising, mortgage rates tend to rise as well.
When the economy weakens and inflation rates decline, mortgage rates tend to fall, too. Again, this ties into how the Federal Reserve adjusts interest rates to cool off or jump-start the economy.
The Fed does not set mortgage rates, however. Instead, fixed-rate mortgages are tied to rates of the 10-year Treasury, which are bonds issued by the government that mature in a decade. When the Treasury rate increases, the 30-year mortgage rate tends to do the same.
The federal funds rate, the interest rate set by the Fed that banks apply to lend money to one another overnight, affects short-term loans like adjustable-rate mortgages.
So in terms of what affects mortgage rates, movement in the 10-year Treasury yield is the short answer. Higher yields can mean higher rates, while lower yields can lead to lower rates. The longer answer is that inflation rates, interest rates, and the economic environment can work together to sway mortgage rates at any given time.
A simple way to see the relationship between inflation rates and mortgage rates is to look at how they’ve trended historically. If you track the average 30-year mortgage rate and the annual inflation rate from 1971 to now, you’ll see that they move more or less in tandem.
They don’t always move perfectly in sync, but it’s typical to see rising mortgage rates paired with rising inflation rates.
Inflation Trends for 2021 and Beyond
As of May 2021, the U.S. inflation rate had hit 5% as measured by the Consumer Price Index, representing the largest 12-month increase since 2008 and moving well beyond the 2% target inflation rate the Federal Reserve aims for.
While prices for consumer goods and services were up across the board, the biggest increase overall was in the energy category.
Rising inflation rates in 2021 are thought to be driven by a combination of things, including:
• A reopening economy
• Increased demand for goods and services
• Shortages in supply of goods and services
The coronavirus pandemic saw many people cut back on spending in 2020, leading to a surplus of savings. State reopenings have spurred a wave of “revenge spending” among consumers.
Although the demand for goods and services is up, supply chain disruptions and worker shortages are making it difficult for companies to meet consumer needs. This has resulted in steadily rising inflation.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell said in June 2021 that he anticipates a continued rise in the U.S. inflation rate in 2021. This is projected to be followed by an eventual dropoff and return to lower inflation rates in 2022.
In the meantime, the Fed has discussed the possibility of an interest rate increase, though there are no firm plans to do so yet. Some Fed bank presidents, though, have forecast an initial rate increase in 2022.
Is Now a Good Time for a Mortgage or Refi?
It’s clear that there’s a link between inflation rates and mortgage rates. But what does all of this mean for homebuyers or homeowners?
It simply means that if you’re interested in buying a home it could make sense to do so sooner rather than later. Despite the economic upheaval in 2020 and the rise in inflation that’s happening now, mortgage rates have still held near historic lows. If the Fed decides to pursue an interest rate hike, that could have a trickle-down effect and lead to higher mortgage rates.
Buying a home now could help you lock in a better deal on a loan and get a good mortgage rate, especially as home values increase.
The higher home values go, the more important a low-interest rate becomes, as the rate can directly affect how much home you’re able to afford.
The same is true if you already own a home and you’re considering refinancing an existing mortgage. With refinancing, the math gets a bit trickier.
You might want to determine your break-even point when the money you save on interest charges catches up to what you spend on closing costs for a refi loan.
To find the break-even point on a refi, divide the total loan costs by the monthly savings. If refinancing fees total $3,000 and you’ll save $250 a month, that’s 3,000 divided by 250, or 12. That means it’ll take 12 months to recoup the cost of refinancing.
If you refinance to a shorter-term, your savings can multiply beyond the break-even point.
If your current mortgage rate is above refinancing rates, it could make sense to shop around for refinancing options.
Keep in mind, of course, that the actual rate you pay for a purchase loan or refinance loan can also depend on things like your credit score, income, and debt-to-income ratio.
Recommended: How to Refinance Your Mortgage – Step-By-Step Guide
Inflation appears to be here to stay, at least for the near term. Understanding what affects mortgage rates and the relationship between the inflation rate vs. interest rates matters from a savings perspective.
Buying a home or refinancing when mortgage rates are lower could add up to a substantial cost difference over the life of your loan.
SoFi offers fixed-rate home loans and mortgage refinancing. Now might be a good time to find the best loan for your needs and budget.
Photo credit: iStock/Max Zolotukhin
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