Saturday, March 01, 2008

Auto, Home Buys `Won't Happen' as Rates Don't Budge (Update1)

By Matthew Benjamin

Feb. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Consumers like Valerie Jacobsen aren't getting much of a break on borrowing costs even after five months of interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve.

Jacobsen, 30, wants to refinance her 7.25 percent first and 8.5 percent second mortgages into one loan at a lower cost. To cut the payments enough to recoup her $3,000 in closing costs, she needs a rate well below 6 percent. She wasn't ready when costs dipped in January and now they're back at levels that make her plan too expensive, the Austin, Minnesota, resident says.

``Rates I'm seeing aren't really mimicking what the Federal Reserve is doing,'' said Jacobsen. ``I'm wondering why that is.''

Trying to spur lending and avert a recession, the Fed has chopped 2.25 percentage points off its benchmark rate since September. Wariness among lenders and fears of inflation are keeping mortgage and auto loan rates close to or above levels before the central bank began easing, while credit-card issuers are tightening their standards.

The slippage between the Fed's rate cuts and consumers' ability to borrow or reduce loan costs is weakening the central bank's ability to stimulate the biggest part of the economy, consumer spending. It accounts for more than two-thirds of goods and services output and stalled for the second consecutive month in January after adjusting for inflation, the Commerce Department said today.

`Missing Activity'

With many households unable to borrow, ``those transactions won't happen, and that missing activity is the missing economic growth,'' said Neal Soss, chief economist at Credit Suisse Group in New York. ``So the Fed will have to do more than otherwise to compensate.''

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee Feb. 27 that ``the slump in subprime mortgage originations, together with a more general tightening of credit conditions, has served to increase the severity of the downturn.''

The Fed lowered the cost of overnight loans between banks by 125 basis points, or 1.25 percentage points, over nine days in January, the fastest easing since 1990. The rate, now at 3 percent, sets the benchmark for other credit.

Consumer costs for mortgages barely budged. The average interest rate on a conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgage stands at 5.88 percent, according to, 2 basis points below the September level. For jumbo loans, those exceeding $417,000, borrowers are paying an average of 6.82 percent, just 20 basis points lower than when the Fed began easing. Lenders say they are requiring a bigger down payment for that rate than before, as much as 20 percent.

For buyers of new cars, a five-year loan costs 6.95 percent, 4 basis points more than in September. In some states, the rate is closer to 7.5 percent.

Disconnected Rates

Loan costs for individuals and businesses declined 45 basis points since September, or a fifth as much as the Fed's benchmark, according to Merrill Lynch & Co., based in New York. While consumer interest rates have never moved in lockstep with the central bank, now they are even more disconnected, according to David Rosenberg, Merrill Lynch's chief North America economist.

``For every 5 basis points cut by the Fed, only 1 basis point is reaching Main Street,'' said Rosenberg. ``The Fed is cutting rates, which is wonderful for the government yield curve, but most interest rates are not following suit.''

Credit-card rates, which tend to reflect Fed changes quickly, are down an average of 1.32 percentage points since the easing began, according to, a Fort Myers, Florida, research organization.

At the same time, ``card issuers have tightened lending standards, so fewer people qualify for those lower rates,'' says President Robert McKinley.

Reduced Credit

Credit-card lenders including New York-based Citigroup Inc. have reduced lines of credit for borrowers they consider likely to default.

No matter how low rates go, certain consumers may be out of luck. Banks tightened standards and terms for a broad range of loan types over the past three months, according to the Fed's quarterly survey of senior loan officers.

GMAC LLC, the lender controlled by New York-based Cerberus Capital Management LP, tightened underwriting standards three times last year to the least credit-worthy borrowers, according to spokeswoman Gina Proia.

Passing On Risk

``Mortgage and consumer credit are, and will almost certainly become, even harder to come by,'' said Credit Suisse's Soss. He blames growing risk aversion among lenders and widespread fears that inflation will limit the Fed's ability to lower rates further.

In addition, lenders can't pass on the risk as easily as they could before the subprime crisis began, as secondary markets for many loans have dried up.

``There's less availability of securitization financing, so lenders have to price it such that they're comfortable living with the credit risk on their own balance sheet,'' said Eric Wasserstrom, a New York-based UBS AG analyst.

For homebuyers, conditions will get worse, industry analysts say. Loan purchasers like Freddie Mac, the second- largest provider of home-loan money, have added new charges that will ultimately be paid by consumers, says Dean Hackemer, president of Access National Mortgage in Reston, Virginia.

``If you're a consumer with great credit, you're paying a quarter of a percentage point to three-eighths of a percentage point more than you were in September,'' Hackemer said. ``If you've got marginal credit, God help you.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Matthew Benjamin in Washington at ;

Last Updated: February 29, 2008 10:33 EST

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