Markets don’t like uncertainty, and a little of that was removed yesterday as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was approved by the Senate for a second four-year term by a 70-30 vote. Supporters admitted that that the Federal Reserve under Bernanke had missed signs leading up to the recent economic crisis, but argued that under Bernanke’s leadership the Fed had helped steer the U.S. economy away from utter catastrophe. But no one wants to switch horses in midstream, even if there could be found a “new horse” that was qualified.

Overall, how have the programs designed to stop mass foreclosures been working? Not so well, and for a variety of reasons. Servicers often don’t have the ability to do renegotiations in bulk, and sometimes make more money by dragging their feet. Loans being placed into securities, which are then sliced and diced, make things more complicated, and borrowers usually are not even sure if they’re eligible. We should all keep in mind, according to a recent paper by the Boston Fed, that foreclosing is often more profitable than renegotiating. Almost a third of delinquent borrowers “self cure”. And of those who have their mortgages modified, more than a third end up defaulting eventually anyway.  So in both cases, modifications make the servicer worse off. The housing bubble was very expensive – it will be surprising if we can deal with its consequences on the cheap.

At least there is no ambiguity about what the Fed is doing in their mortgage purchase program. Last week the Fed purchased a net $12 billion in agency MBS, bringing its total net purchase to $1.161 trillion. But everyone has a pretty good sense of how this movie is going to end, right? Well, perhaps not. The odds are highly in favor of the Fed keeping overnight rates where they are through June. In fact, an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday points out that there is a growing belief among investors that when the Fed’s mortgage security purchase program ends at the end of March, mortgage rates won’t soar. “They argue that investors, searching for higher-yielding securities, will find government-backed mortgage-backed securities a bargain relative to other investments, like corporate debt, that have rallied for much of the past year.”

I don’t think that anyone believes that the US government will suddenly leave the entire housing and mortgage market on its own. Those markets have had either implicit or explicit government backing for decades, which makes investors much more likely to buy mortgage-related securities. Lately production has dropped, as has the weekly amount of Fed purchases from $21 billion to $12 billion, yet mortgage rates are still relatively low. Yes, mortgage rates may move higher, and in fact rates in general may move higher, but at some point the yields look more attractive to investors, and as they buy these securities, the price goes up and rates move back down. Thus goes the argument against lenders saying, with regard to mortgage rates, “The end is near!” Now, if we could only get underwriting guidelines to loosen up!

Yesterday, only one day after the FOMC meeting (which had its first dissenter in over a year), the market started off slightly worse, but then came back later in the day. A weak stock market helped, as did a very good $32 billion 7-yr Note auction. Today we saw Gross Domestic Product for the 4th quarter, estimated to be 4.6% versus the 2.2% annual rate in the prior quarter. The 5.7% pace was certainly stronger than expected, and the highest pace in more than six years.

Growth was boosted a sharp slowdown in the pace of inventory liquidation, but even stripping out inventories the economy expanded at an annual rate of 2.2 percent. Later we’ll have the Chicago Purchasing Manager’s Survey and the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Survey. But the GDP number has pushed rates higher, and mortgage prices are worse by about .250 and the yield on the 10-yr is up to 3.68% again.

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