U.S. Downgrade: How Will It Impact Housing Fundamentals?
By: Carrie Bay
UPDATED to reflect S&P’s Monday morning rating downgrades of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Home Loan Banks.
Congress’ last-minute accord to raise the nation’s debt ceiling and avert a default wasn’t enough to save the United States’ AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s. The market’s reaction to the news could have an impact on Treasury yields and with these yields closely tied to mortgage rates, on homebuyers’ borrowing costs.
[Editor’s Note: As the day unfolded, following publication of this article, investors responded to the news with a Treasury bond buying spree, resulting in a 13 basis point drop in 10-year Treasury yields.]
The international ratings agency downgraded the long-term sovereign credit rating of the United States to AA+ late Friday night. That’s a grade level just below the AAA rating the U.S. had held for 70 years, going back to 1941 when S&P began assigning ratings to countries.
S&P said the fiscal plan that Congress and the administration agreed to last week “falls short” of what its analysts believe is “necessary to stabilize the general government debt burden by the middle of the decade.”
The agency also said the wrangling that went on in Washington – namely the use of the impending threat of default as a political bargaining chip – makes near-term progress on curbing public spending or reaching an agreement to raise revenues “less likely than we previously assumed.” S&P says the debate “will remain a contentious and fitful process.”
White House and Treasury officials fired back at S&P for basing the downgrade on what they said was a “math error of significant consequence.” The administration says S&P misquoted estimates from the Congressional Budget Office by $2 trillion in projecting the deficit over the next 10 years. S&P has since acknowledged the error but says that doesn’t change its decision.
So what does all this mean for the housing and mortgage markets?
Mortgage financiers Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and 10 of the 12 Federal Home Loan Banks also had their senior debt issue ratings cut from AAA to AA+ by S&P Monday morning. (The Federal Home Loan Banks of Chicago and Seattle were already rated AA+ prior to the U.S. sovereign downgrade.)
S&P says the downgrades were the result of the institutions’ “direct reliance on the U.S. government.” The agency warned back in April that the rating of the U.S. would have a direct impact on the ratings attached to the debt of these government-sponsored entities.
Reuters notes that a downgrade of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could also affect billions of dollars of debt issued by public housing authorities, debt that is secured by federally guaranteed mortgages.
The markets are bracing for an eventful week ahead, with expectations that the value of the dollar will slip and Treasury yields will begin to rise. The trajectory of mortgage rates typically goes hand-in-hand with Treasury yields.
But market participants point out that mortgage rates are already at historical lows, and it still hasn’t done much to boost demand from homebuyers.
Economists and housing experts alike were expecting mortgage rates to head higher later this year, even before the rating downgrade.
According to Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist for the research firm Capital Economics, “[A]ny spike in Treasury yields and/or fall in the dollar should be relatively short-lived. Once the dust settles, attention will turn back to the economic fundamentals, which are certainly consistent with low Treasury yields.”
The analysts at Barclays Capital don’t expect the ensuing shock to the market to run very deep.
“Treasuries are not going to sell off…but longer-run the fiscal problems are likely to mean a weaker dollar,” Barclays said.
The firm also stressed that for many observers, it was really a question of when the downgrade would happen rather than if it would since S&P had been very clear about its expectations.
“But it is yet another milestone in the ongoing financial crisis: another once-unthinkable event has taken place,” Barclays said. “For decades the 10-year U.S. government bond yield was the definition of the long-run risk-free interest rate; now that has been declared a less than top-notch credit risk.”
S&P is the only one of the three major ratings agencies to downgrade the United States.
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