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Rising mortgage rates slow down consumers' stampede to refinance
Michael E. Kanell - Staff
Thursday, July 24, 2003

Rising interest rates are starting to dampen the housing market, mostly by dousing the previously red-hot rush to refinance.

Mortgage applications dipped 5.4 percent last week, with most of the drop caused by refinancing, which fell 7 percent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. The refinancing index is down 38 percent from its late-May crest.

"Refinancing will basically shut down," said Timothy Rogers, chief economist of Briefing.com. "At some point, rising rates will skunk the market. Maybe starting in the fall."

Real estate has been a critical element in the economy's struggle since the recession of 2001. Record sales of new and existing homes have pumped money into construction and other sectors. Refinancing also has pumped cash into consumers' pockets.

Bolstered by housing, the economy has grown since late 2001, but so sluggishly that nearly 3 million jobs have disappeared. Now, many economists say an improving economy can overcome any chill from slowing real estate.

"I think GDP will take off like a rocket in 2004," Rogers said.

Rising rates, in fact, can be taken as a sign that the recovery is picking up steam, argued economist Campbell Harvey of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Growth of more than 3 percent will be needed to trim joblessless, he said.

"The question is, just how strong the recovery is going to get. I think employment is going to be very slow to come back. And some of those jobs that were lost are not going to come back."

Even with the recent slide, refinancing and home-buying remain elevated.

Mortgage applications for home-buying are only 4 percent under their all-time high and 26 percent higher than a year ago, according to economist Celia Chen of Economy.com.

And in the short term, rising rates may trigger a run to get mortgages before they go higher. After that, the market cools --- especially if the climb continues.

"But it doesn't come to a screeching halt," said Cynthia Latta, chief U.S. economist for Global Insight. "When it gets to 6.5 or 7 percent, you will see a lot people hesitate."

Home prices, which have steadily advanced, will likely slow or take a modest step backward, she said.

The Federal Reserve has slashed short-term rates from 6.50 to 1 percent in an effort to spur spending. But mortgage rates are typically pegged to long-term Treasury bonds, which the Fed does not control. However, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan in the spring managed to push bond rates down by signaling a commitment to keep shoving money into the economy. When the Fed shifted to a rosier view, bonds sold off, nudging rates up.

Only a return to recession would likely send rates back to the lows of the spring, say economists. More likely is a continued slow climb.


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2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution