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Mortgage-Bond Sales Soar on Fed’s Refinance Push

DEC 27, 2012 10:26am ET
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Sales of U.S.-backed mortgage bonds soared to a three-year high as steps by the Federal Reserve and Obama administration to make home ownership more affordable propelled a 34% jump in refinancing.

Issuance of securities guaranteed by government-supported Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or U.S.-owned Ginnie Mae has climbed to $1.72 trillion, compared with $1.22 trillion last year and $1.73 trillion in 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. With weekly rates on 30-year home loans falling to record lows eight times since July, the first increase since 2009 in refinancing has driven total lending to almost $1.8 trillion this year, double a forecast from the Mortgage Bankers Association in October 2011.

The Fed, the biggest buyer in the $5.2 trillion market, has purchased about $500 billion of the debt in 2012 as it tries to stoke the economy while President Obama promotes programs to help more homeowners lower their monthly bills. In September, the central bank accelerated purchases of mortgage securities by $40 billion a month for its third round of so-called quantitative easing, or QE3.

“The supply over the last three months in particular has been stronger than we anticipated, even given QE3,” Walt Schmidt, a mortgage strategist in Chicago at FTN Financial, said in a telephone interview. The gains partly reflected originators increasing capacity through hiring, he said.

While issuance of home-loan bonds without U.S. backing also climbed, sales are below the peaks reached before delinquencies on the loans helped spark the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Sales tied to new home loans quintupled to $3.5 billion, compared with the record annual pace of $1.2 trillion reached in 2005 and 2006, Bloomberg-compiled data show.

As in the past three years, “the agency mortgage market was the only game in town for new origination,” Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc strategists Jeana Curro and Ashley Gam wrote in a 2013 outlook published Dec. 13.

Next year, agency mortgage-bond issuance may slip to $1.65 billion as refinancing remains elevated and higher Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac insurance fees help push banks to retain more home loans, they said.

Elsewhere in credit markets, the cost of protecting corporate bonds from default in the U.S. rose for a third day as budget talks wavered in Washington. A measure of debt-market stress increased and in emerging markets, relative yields widened.

The Markit CDX North American Investment Grade Index, a credit-default swaps benchmark used to hedge against losses or to speculate on creditworthiness, increased 1.5 basis points from Dec. 24 to a mid-price of 95.1 basis points, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg.

The benchmark, down from 119.8 at yearend, climbed as lawmakers prepare to convene for budget talks aimed at avoiding more than $600 billion in tax gains and spending cuts scheduled to take effect Jan. 1. Failure to avert the so-called fiscal cliff may tip the economy back into recession, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The index ended Dec. 20 at a three- month low.

The Markit iTraxx Europe index climbed one basis point to 113 at 10:24 a.m. in London. The Markit iTraxx Asia index of 40 investment-grade borrowers outside Japan was little changed at 110.

The indexes typically rise when investor confidence deteriorates and falls as it improves. Credit swaps pay the buyer face value if a borrower fails to meet its obligations, less the value of the defaulted debt. A basis point equals $1,000 annually on a contract protecting $10 million of debt.

The U.S. two-year interest-rate swap spread rose 2.63 basis points to 14.38 basis points. The gauge widens when investors seek the perceived safety of government securities and narrows when they favor assets such as corporate bonds. It’s tightened from 48.31 on Dec. 31, touching a record intraday low of 8 basis points on Oct. 17.

Bonds of New York-based Morgan Stanley were the most actively traded dollar-denominated corporate securities by dealers yesterday, with 34 trades of $1 million or more, according to Trace, the bond-price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

In emerging markets, relative yields widened 2 basis points to 268 basis points, or 2.68 percentage points, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI Global index. The measure has averaged 343.5 this year.

U.S. government-backed mortgage bonds have returned 2.5 percent this year through Dec. 24, beating similar-duration Treasuries by 1.3 percentage points, Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data show. In 2011, the home-loan debt gained 6.1%, underperforming the government notes by 0.8%.

Higher refinancing that lowers mortgage-bond returns by curbing interest limited the gains even as the Fed’s buying sent prices to records. Investment-grade corporate bonds in the U.S. returned 10.1%.

Nonagency securities backed by subprime mortgages issued before the housing market collapsed in 2007 beat most fixed-income assets, with returns averaging 40.5%, Barclays Plc index data show. After losing 5.5% last year, the debt rallied as home-prices climbed and a calming of Europe’s debt crisis and the Fed’s actions drove investors toward riskier debt.

Home-loan originations may rise 21.6% in 2012 to $1.75 trillion, the highest since 2009, as refinancing reaches $1.25 trillion, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Refinancing fell 25% last year. Volumes, which peaked at $3.8 trillion in 2003, may drop to $1.41 trillion next year, with $818 billion of refinances, the Washington-based group forecast this month.

At its annual conference in October 2011, Jay Brinkmann, the group’s chief economist, said lending would probably decline 25% this year to $900 billion. The association had predicted declines in refinancing activity for three years because of its forecasts of rising interest rates, he said. Instead, the average rate was at a then-record low.

“One of these years, I guess we’ll get it right,” Brinkmann said at the time. “It’s really difficult to forecast interest rates in this environment” because of the Fed’s involvement in the debt market.

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