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Friday, September 21, 2007

What The Recent Fed Cut Really Means

Friday, September 21, 2007provided by
Fed's Half-Point Move Likely to Trim Payments on Credit Cards, Home-Equity Lines, but Offer
Scant Relief on Certain Mortgages

Consumers should soon start feeling the impact of Tuesday's Fed rate cut in the form of lower borrowing costs and stingier savings rates. But the rate cut doesn't offer much help for the key problems bedeviling many mortgage borrowers.
The Federal Reserve said it lowered short-term interest rates by half a percentage point, to 4.75%, to combat the effects of a weaker housing market and tighter credit on the broader economy. The steep reduction in the Fed funds rate surprised many on Wall Street who expected a more modest rate cut. Stocks on Sept. 18 rose sharply after the Fed's announcement, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 335.97 points, or 2.5%, to 13739.39.

The rate cut should reduce payments on many home-equity lines of credit, credit cards and some car loans. Perversely, however, some economists say it could lead to higher rates on fixed-rate mortgages down the road if bond markets expect the Fed move will spur higher economic growth or inflation.
There also is likely to be little immediate relief for borrowers with certain types of adjustable-rate mortgages. That's because the rates on some of these loans are tied to the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, which recently jumped sharply above the Fed funds rate because of the continuing credit crunch in the markets. Libor, which has drifted downward recently, is an interest rate charged by banks for short-term loans to each other.
"If Libor doesn't come down, there is no relief" for many mortgage borrowers, says James Bianco, president of Bianco Research LLC, a market-research firm in Chicago.
Borrowers who should see immediate benefits from the Fed cut are those holding loans tied to U.S. banks' prime rate. Consumers can contact their lenders to inquire how their rates are calculated. Many banks cut their prime rates by half a percentage point after yesterday's Fed move.
Here is a look at what the Fed's action means for consumers:
• Homeowners. The rate cut is good news for borrowers with home-equity lines of credit, and savings could show up as soon as the next monthly statement. Borrowers looking for a new fixed-rate home-equity loan could also see lower rates. There are likely to be regional differences, with lenders most likely to cut rates on these loans in areas where the housing market is healthy and the local economy is robust, says Doug Duncan, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association. Before the Fed's latest move, rates on home-equity lines averaged 8.72%, while home-equity loans averaged 8.29%, according to HSH Associates.
But in a twist, the Fed cut could boost rates down the road for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages. These rates are typically influenced by rates on 10-year Treasurys, which have moved lower recently in anticipation of a quarter-point cut in rates and because of a flight to quality in bond markets. But if markets expect a higher level of economic growth than previously anticipated, or a pickup in inflation, borrowers could see "some modest increase in fixed-rates going forward, though not necessarily immediately," Mr. Duncan says.
Recent news has been mixed for borrowers with adjustable-rate mortgages. Borrowers with ARMs that are tied to Treasury averages have benefited from a recent decline in rates. For those who are facing their first rate reset on Oct. 1, "that reset will be less painful than it would have been had it taken place a couple months ago," says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst with
But higher borrowing costs may still be in the offing for homeowners whose adjustables are tied to Libor. Libor is frequently used to set rates for subprime adjustables, loans made to borrowers with scuffed credit. As for non-subprime ARMs, roughly half of these originated in recent years are also tied to Libor, estimates Keith Gumbinger, a mortgage analyst with HSH Associates. Borrowers can determine which index their adjustable is tied to by checking their loan documents.
The rate cut isn't likely to do much for the biggest problem facing the mortgage market: a liquidity crunch that has made it tougher for many borrowers to get a loan. "People have been characterizing this as a bailout for housing, but I don't think that's accurate," says Mr. Duncan of the Mortgage Bankers Association. The rate cut is "much more about the broader economy," while the mortgage market's troubles are "all about credit and property values."
• Savers. Savers could soon see lower payouts on their savings accounts, certificates of deposit and money-market mutual funds. In fact, some banks have already started to reduce their rates or scale back their deals. Bank of America Corp., for instance, recently shortened the maturities on its promotional CDs paying 5% to four months from eight months.
Nevertheless, banks are going to be reluctant to cut rates before their competitors, in part because consumer deposits remain one of the cheapest sources of funds available for the banks, says's Mr. McBride. In fact, average CD rates have barely budged in recent months with yields on five-, three- and one-year CDs currently at 4%, 3.77% and 3.76%. "That is very uncharacteristic," since CD yields normally move well in advance of a Fed action, he says. "Savers are getting a break."
Average yields on money-market mutual funds, which have been hovering at 5% for about a year, are likely to drop to about 4.5% in the next month, says Pete Crane of Crane Data LLC. But part of the fall in yields may be counteracted by some managers' moves to buy higher-yielding asset-backed commercial paper, he says. As a result, there may be a benefit to shopping around since money managers can differentiate their funds' performance by investing in the higher-yielding securities.
• Credit Cards. Many credit-card customers should soon see some relief. About 85% of all credit cards carry variable rates. But many holders of these cards will see a benefit only if their current rate exceeds any floors established by the issuers, typically around 14% to 15%, below which their rates can't fall. Today, most interest rates are in the 18%-to-19% range.
Since most issuers adjust their pricing on a monthly basis, about half of all variable-rate cards should see an adjustment in October, with the rest in November, says Robert McKinley, chief executive of "Consumers could find some money in their pockets in about a month." The half-percentage-point drop in rates should result in a savings of about $30 a month for the typical household, which carries a median credit-card debt of $7,000, he says.
• Auto Loans. A rate cut isn't likely to have a big impact on new-car loans in part because more than half of all auto loans are already offered at reduced rates due to heavy manufacturer incentives, says Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research Inc. But the Fed's move could make it cheaper to get a used-car loan because many people turn to banks and credit unions to finance their purchase, he says.
Still, consumers could start seeing better financing deals if the Fed continues to cut rates. Auto-loan rates, generally tied to the movement in Treasurys, already had started to ease given the recent drop in Treasury yields. Average rates on five-year new-car loans are 7.72%, versus 7.81% on July 4, according to
• Student Loans. Students with private, variable-rate student loans pegged to the prime rate may see their rates adjust more quickly than borrowers with loans tied to Libor. (Loans pegged to Libor or the prime rate are split about equally.)
But that doesn't automatically mean that borrowers should switch to prime-based loans. Historically, loans pegged to Libor have tended to yield a slightly lower rate than loans tied to prime over the life of the loan, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of

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