Variable Rates (almost) always win

General Angela Calla 6 Apr

There is a small loophole in the new federal mortgage rules that could make it easier for the banks to lend out money to first-time buyers.

The federal government announced last month new requirements for anyone borrowing money for a house and needing mortgage insurance. If you have less than a 20% down payment and are borrowing from a financial institution covered by the Bank Act, you have to take out mortgage default insurance, which ensures the banks are covered for any losses resulting from payment defaults.

For principal residences, the new rules force consumers to qualify for a loan based on being able to make payments on a five-year fixed-rate mortgage, which has a much higher interest rate than variable mortgages, now as low 1.85%.

Clearly, Ottawa’s view was toward rising rates. And this week, two of the major banks raised their posted rate on five-year fixed mortgages to 5.85%.

But one lingering question is how the five-year rate would be calculated in terms of qualifying a customer. In other words, it would obviously be a lot tougher to qualify for a mortgage under the new rules when using the posted rate of 5.85%. But if using the actual rate consumers get — these days as low as 3.75% — that’s a lot less income you’ll need to buy your first home.

Officials in Ottawa have been mum on what numbers should be used.

But an internal document distributed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. to mortgage brokers, obtained by the Financial Post, shows consumers will be able to use their actual rate to qualify for a mortgage if they go for a term five years or longer.

If buyers want a variable-rate mortgage, they will have to qualify based on “the benchmark rate,” which is essentially the posted rate.

So, if you want to go short, you had better be able to make payments based on an interest rate as high as 5.85%, which is where the benchmark rate will likely sit by next week.

“Probably 10% of the overall mortgage population is going to be affected by this rule in the sense they are no longer going to be able to qualify for a variable-rate mortgage or a one- to four-year term,” says Robert McLister, editor of Canadian Mortgage Trends. “The qualifying rate is going to affect the debt ratios of those people.”

The end result may see more people forced to lock in their rate, which is hardly fair given variable-rate mortgages have been a better deal than fixed-rate rate mortgages about 88% of the time over the past 50 years, before the recent credit crisis.

“This will help people become accustomed to making payments based on where mortgage payments are likely to be going,” said Peter Vukanovich, chief executive of Genworth Financial Canada, the mortgage insurer.

He doesn’t think the changes are a major deal, given that most of the major banks have been qualifying consumers based on their four- and five-year rates. His company was already only insuring products based on rates as high as 4%.

“It’s a good rule change when you are situation right now where we are increasing interest rates,” says Jim Smith, vice-president of Scotia Mortgage Authority. “Most lenders, ourselves included, have qualified based on at least the three-year posted rate.”

The discrepancy is, the three-year posted rate at most banks is actually higher than the five-year discounted rate.

And that means it is actually going to get easier to get a mortgage — as long as you do what the government tells you to do and lock in your rate.

Financial Post

Read more:

Variable rates, are they as good as they look?

General Angela Calla 6 Apr

Should you lock in your mortgage or let it float with a variable rate? Toronto-Based wealth manager Scott Tomenson makes the case for variable.


Q: My fiance and I have just bought our first home and we are going in circles about what is the best mortgage for us before we close. We currently have a locked-infixed rate with a bank of 3.98%, which we prefer to the uncertainty of taking a variable mortgage. But would we be better off with a variable-rate mortgage, especially if we saved money during periods when rate are low and use that to make payments on principal? Will that offset costs when our payments are higher than our current fixed rate?

Getting Dizzy, Ontario

A: Historically, as far as interest rates are concerned, it is better to float your mortgage interest rate (i. e., choose a variable rate mortgage). This is a result of the “yield curve.” The “normal” yield curve is positively sloped, with interest rates lower for short-term maturities (one to two years) and higher for longer-term maturities (five to 30 years). When the economy strengthens, the Bank of Canada will raise short-term interest rates (they only have control over short-term rates) and the base for variable-rate mortgages (usually the prime rate) is moved higher. This action signals a period of “tightening” of monetary policy to cool the economy and reduces inflationary pressures.

The vehicles that determine longer-term interest rates — bonds — tend to move according to inflationary expectations: If bond investors anticipate inflation (because of economic growth), they demand higher returns (interest rates) as protection from inflation. When the Bank of Canada is perceived as “fighting” inflation by raising shortterm interest rates, long-term rates have a tendency, in most cases, to remain stable or improve, because long-term bond investors are content that inflation will not grow.

In essence, while short-term interest rates may go up, they do so only until the Bank of Canada has slowed the economy enough to curb anticipated inflation. Then, as economic growth slows, the bank starts to lower them. The yield curve will flatten (with higher short-term interest rates) for a time, but when the economy slows, short-term rates will go back down and the yield curve returns to its “normal” positive slope.

Over this time, variable-rate mortgages will move up to being approximately equal to locked-in five-or 10-year rates, but that’s followed by a period when they return to lower levels. More often than not, over this time, it is less costly to have held the variable rate debt. Exceptions to this situation would be times of hyper-inflation (like in the 1980s) when short-term interest rates went to extreme levels.

If you had a variable mortgage at prime minus over the past few years, as I did, it’s been a great ride. I kept my payments level and the low interest rates allowed to me to pay off massive amounts of principal. True, the economy is strengthening and shortterm rates will go up a bit over the next couple of years, but I don’t think it will be dramatic. The case for variable-rate mortgages remains strong.


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