Mortgage rates spike - leap size tops '87

Rates saw the biggest weekly jump since 1987 - analysts predict 30-year fixed mortgage rates will climb higher, and pin the hike on government rescue efforts.

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By Les Christie, CNNMoney.com staff writer

What should be at the top of the next president's economic agenda?
  • Solving the credit crunch
  • Creating new jobs
  • Reducing the deficit
  • Halting the housing meltdown
  • Cutting taxes
Mortgage Rates
30 yr fixed 4.08%
15 yr fixed 3.23%
5/1 ARM 3.46%
30 yr refi 4.14%
15 yr refi 3.28%

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Rates provided by Bankrate.com.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Low mortgage rates, the one bright spot in a devastated housing market, are on a rapid rise.

Freddie Mac reported Thursday that the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage has hit 6.46% - up from 5.94% the week earlier. That represented the largest weekly increase since April 1987, when the 30-year rose 0.84 points.

Bankrate.com also charted the spike. The investment Web site reported that the average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage jumped to 6.74% on Wednesday from 6.2% the Wednesday before.

Translation: A borrower with a $200,000 mortgage would pay about $1,225 a month at 6.2%, and $70 more, $1,295 at 6.74%.

Mike Larson, an analyst with Weiss Research who participates in Bankrate.com's weekly mortgage rate surveys, expects to see rates top 7% in the next six months, and then turn back down.

That would be quite a bit higher than rates have been, but it's no disaster.

Keith Gumbinger of HSH Associates, a publisher of mortgage information, attributes the rate increase to the massive federal bailout. To fund the rescue and the new government guarantees, Treasury must sell a raft of new Treasury bills to raise money.

"Who even has the cash to buy them all?" he said. "The Treasury has to offer higher interest rates to sell."

And mortgage rates tend to move in conjunction with those 10-year Treasury yields, which rose rapidly during the past week, up to more than 4% Wednesday from below 3.5% the week before.

The spread - the difference between Treasury yields and mortgage rates - also expanded a bit, according to Bankrate.com.

Unintended consequences

There may be another factor at work sending rates skyward, according to FTN Financial Group analyst, Jim Vogel.

The cost of financing mortgages will grow for the biggest buyers of mortgage debt, Freddie Mac (FRE, Fortune 500) and Fannie Mae (FNM, Fortune 500), thanks to the plan for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to back the newly issued, unsecured debt of some banks.

By guaranteeing bank debt, the government is making that debt more attractive for investors, and consequently creating more competition for Fannie and Freddie when they look to sell their own securities. To compete for buyers, the mortgage giants will have to raise their own yields - and to pay for that they'll have to charge borrowers higher interest.

"In theory, I think that could be correct," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Economy.com, who is also an adviser to John McCain's presidential campaign. "But in practice, whether it means that rates will rise is an open question. There's a strong demand for really safe assets these days and Fannie and Freddie bonds are just a step removed from Treasurys."

If there's enough demand for ultra-safe investments like Fannie and Freddie bonds, Zandi says, they may not have to boost their yields all that much to attract investors.

Zandi pointed out that the difference between Treasury yields and 30-year mortgage rates is very high right now, more than 2% compared with 1.5% normally. That's because investors fled to risk-free Treasurys when the markets panicked.

But eventually, he says, the government rescue may send mortgage rates down and narrow that spread. "If that helps bring down the general angst, than mortgage rates should fall," he said.

Gumbinger expects rates to stay higher for several more months, as financial markets and lending take some time to return to normal. But he doesn't see the current spike as the beginning of the end of affordable mortgages.

"Rates should probably settle back down," he said. "We should see an easing of credit availability and that should put downward pressure on rates." To top of page

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