Rates Stay Low as the Economy Keeps Humming Along


Businesses keep doing what they’ve been doing for the past five years — hiring employees and making money. 

On the former, business hiring helped lift payrolls by 261,000 in October. The surge in hiring dropped the unemployment rate to 4.1%. This is the lowest the unemployment rate has been since the year 2000. 

The latest round of monthly hiring lowered the pool of available workers to 11.7 million, which is shallow by historical standards. Businesses have been able to hire workers without breaking the bank. Wage growth remains anemic, with average hourly wages up only 0.5% in October. Year over year, hourly wages are up a moderate 2.4%. (That said, total compensation is likely growing at a faster rate when benefits are factored in.) 

On the latter, corporate earnings continue to flow unabated. Eighty-one percent of S&P 500 companies have reported third-quarter earnings. The blended earnings growth rate for these companies is 5.9% year over year. The flow should rise a few notches in the fourth quarter. Factset, a financial data provider, surveyed analysts and the analysts it surveyed expect S&P 500 fourth-quarter earnings to grow 10.4% year over year. 

Businesses are hiring, and they’re efficient about it. What modest wage growth we have has led to even greater earnings growth. (This is rational from an economic perspective: A business expects to receive a positive return on its factors of production.) 

So, wage-rate inflation remains a nonstarter for credit markets. There has been little of it to pressure interest rates to rise. Factor in low consumer-price inflation, another nonstarter, and it’s easy enough to understand why long-term interest rates continue to hover near multi-decade lows. 

As for long-term mortgage rates, 4% on the conventional 30-year fixed-rate loan serves as the fulcrum, as it has for most of 2017. Quotes on the national scene see-saw between 3.875% and 4.125%. 

We’re in a tight range, and we don’t expect to break that range in the foreseeable future. The range could easily hold for the remainder of the year.

It’s still a range worth gaming. After all, the difference in monthly P&I payments on a $300,000 30-year fixed-rate loan financed at 3.875% or 4.12% is $43. That will buy at least a couple of entrees and a round of drinks at the Olive Garden each month. 

For the immediate future, keep an eye on tax reform. If it becomes likely something might pass into law, mortgage rates will likely favor the 4.125% side of the fulcrum.

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