Bad news for home buyers: Mortgage rates have soared to their highest levels since March 2020

By Jacob Passy

Investors are pulling interest rates higher, which threatens to push would-be buyers out of the housing market

Interest rates are surging on the heels of data showing a concerning outlook for inflation — and home buyers are set to pay the price.

The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.45% for the week ending Jan. 13, up nearly a quarter of a percentage point from the previous week, Freddie Mac FMCC, – 1.63% reported Thursday. It’s the highest average rate for the 30-year loan since March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic sent its first shockwaves through financial markets amid the first wave of lockdowns.

Comparatively, a year ago, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 2.23%, near record-low levels.

The 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, meanwhile, rose 19 basis points over the past week to an average of 2.3%. The 5-year Treasury-indexed adjustable-rate mortgage averaged 2.57%, up 16 basis points from the previous week.

The consumer price index released Wednesday showed that inflation was at a nearly 40-year high, with prices for goods and services having risen 7% over the past year.

Such a high rate of inflation is a major concern to the Federal Reserve, which had already indicated it would increase interest rates and scale back its bond-buying activity in an attempt to keep the economy on the rails. But the central bank’s initial plan may now be out the window.

“With inflation more persistent, the Federal Reserve has sped up its timetable for winding down quantitative easing and is likely to begin raising interest rates sooner and more aggressively than previously expected,” said Sam Bullard, managing director and senior economist for the corporate and investment banking arm of Wells Fargo WFC, 2.08%, in a research note.

Bullard projected that the Fed may now hike interest rates four times, rather than the previously projected three. And rather than simply stopping its bond-buying activity, the central bank could actually begin shrinking its balance sheet by not replacing U.S. Treasury’s and mortgage-backed securities when they mature, he said.

The Fed’s rate hikes would not have a direct impact on mortgage rates, as they tend to follow the direction of the yields on long-term bonds such as the 10-year Treasury TMUBMUSD10Y, 1.754%. Instead, higher rates will materialize as investors begin to make assumptions about the Fed’s plans for curbing inflation.

Higher rates aren’t likely to cause home buyers to fully pump the brakes on their plans to purchase property, economists suggested. But it will have an impact at the margins for buyers who may struggle to afford the double whammy of higher interest rates and rising home prices.

“The rise in mortgage rates so far this year has not yet affected purchase demand but given the fast pace of home-price growth, it will likely dampen demand in the near future,” Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac, said in the report.

Photo: Mortgage rates are now rising alongside consumer inflation.