Housing has been subdued the past couple weeks and will likely remain subdued through the remainder of the year. The good news is what's been reported on housing has been mostly positive.

The trend continues this week. The Mortgage Bankers Association reports that purchase applications continue to trend higher, rising 1.0% in the December 7 week. This marks the fifth-consecutive volume increase and is a positive indicator for home sales as we head into the new year.

News on the mortgage market has picked up where housing has left off. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced on Wednesday that the Fed will not only continue purchasing $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) each month, it will also purchase an additional $45 billion in long-term U.S. Treasury securities. Both securities will be pay for with newly minted money.

The Fed's goal is to lower already low mortgage lending rates. The theory is that even lower lending rates will accelerate the housing recovery, thus accelerating the economic recovery. An accelerating economic recovery, in turn, will spur additional job growth. For this reason, the Fed said it will continue to keep interest rates low until the unemployment rate drops to 6.5%. (The unemployment rate is currently 7.7%.)

The Fed's strategy, which creates higher demand for MBSs and U.S. Treasury securities, helps hold mortgage lending rates low. The relationship is inverse: when demand rises for these securities, their price rises and their yield falls.

The graph below illustrates the relationship between a $1,000 10-year note with an initial coupon payment of 6%, which means the note pays $60 in interest annually. When the market rate falls after the note is issued, the note's price rises. A higher price produces a yield that calibrates the lower market rate of interest with the coupon rate.

Mortgage lending rates are tethered to yields on MBSs, which are tethered to U.S. Treasury security yields. In short, by purchasing both Treasury securities and MBSs, the Fed helps keep mortgage lending rates low.

That said, a strange thing happened after the Fed announced it wanted to lower mortgage lending rates even further: The yield on the 10-year Treasury note actually increased (and has been increasing since last week). The 10-year note is a benchmark for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.

So what's going on?

The Fed isn't the only player in the mortgage market; the Fed isn't omnipotent. Outside market forces are also an important variable. The risk of price inflation rises with the Fed pumping more money into the financial system. In fact, the Fed itself raised its annual price-inflation target to 2.5% from 2.0%. If price inflation rises, mortgage lending rates will be pressured to follow.

The point we want to emphasis is not to take for granted that mortgage lending rates will fall meaningfully lower. The Fed is implementing a strategy, not offering a guarantee.

Courtesy of Jessica Regan.

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