Monday, December 04, 2006

An Inverted Yield Curve

The U.S. economy, interest rates, and the housing market are frequent topics on the nightly news. Viewers are told about leading economic indicators, how the stock market has performed, and whether the Federal Reserve is planning on changing interest rates. What isn't explained is how these items are interrelated and how they may impact which home loan is best for you.

The Federal Reserve attempts to keep the U.S. economy healthy through its use of monetary policy. As fears of inflation increase, the Fed will raise certain short-term interest rates such as the federal funds rate, which is the interest rate banks pay each other for overnight loans. Such an increase causes a ripple effect, with banks raising their prime lending rate. This, in turn, causes an increase in Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM) rates and the indices they're tied to, such as the 12-Month Treasury Average (MTA), the 11th District Cost of Funds Index (COFI), and the 1-Month London Inter Bank Offering Rates (LIBOR).

Under normal circumstances, long-term interest rates would also increase even though they are determined by market trading of bonds and mortgage-backed securities rather than monetary policy. However, in certain instances, the market responds in an unexpected manner.

Long-term interest rates are driven by a desire to place money in a steady vehicle that will provide a decent rate of return. When the stock market is underperforming, many corporate and individual investors will sell stocks, and invest their money in bonds. Typically, the longer the holding period of a bond, the higher the yield it will offer. This makes sense because the longer an investor's money is tied up in that investment, the more they should receive for it. However, when there is an increased demand for bonds, the law of supply and demand comes into play. As the demand for bonds increases, the need to attract investors decreases, so the yield offered on those bonds declines.

When the Federal Reserve pursues an aggressive policy and raises short-term interest rates repeatedly over an extended period, and the bond and mortgage-backed securities markets are booming so their yields are lower, an unusual situation arises. Short-term interest rates are high while long-term interest rates remain lower. This leads to a shift in the usual yield-versus-term paradigm, known as an inverted yield curve.