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Interest Rates and the Credit Crunch

May 29, 2008
In Greek mythology, the hydra was a beast that, when one of its many heads were severed, would grow new heads in their place. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has developed in a similar fashion, initially appearing to be constrained to a sector of unworthy credit borrowers who likely didn't have the financial ability to own a home normally. However, this expected loss translated into falls in construction, consumer spending, and widespread mortgage defaults in prime markets.

This hydra doesn't respond well to lip service, such as the interest rate freezing plan ushered in by the US Treasury which is constrained to a statistically small minority of distressed homeowners.

Yet the knock-on effect of the sub-prime crisis that has gotten the most attention is relatively removed from those experiencing foreclosure: the financial sector, overexposed and reeling from massive writedowns due to investment in securities backed by these same sub-prime mortgages. However, both sides of this crisis can be traced to the changing relationship between monetary policy and reality.

Real interest rates, those which banks charge each other for overnight lending, have remained stubbornly above their historical highs, reflecting the reluctance of banks to let go of needed capital. Consumer confidence is at its lowest level since the statistics were taken, asserting the credit crunch's diffusion into the larger economy. With such widespread signals of an economic downturn, the Federal Reserve has been the focus of many investors, especially after the unprecedented bailout of troubled investment bank Bear Stearns.

When the Fed lowers their discount rate, the cut is generally assumed to filter throughout the financial system, making loans cheaper for everyone and stimulating the economy. The US central bank has also not shied away from its ability to auction funds, which it has done liberally in order to stem further liquidity issues.

While banks have taken advantage of more cheaper money, they have not passed all those savings on to others, and mortgage interest rates while low remain higher than would be expected. These rates affect both the returns on stocks for investors all over the world, but also rates for other loans from mortgage payments to fundraising efforts to buy up the troubled derivatives that began wreaking havoc on balance sheets a year ago.

If the Fed is to maintain its credibility as a viable beacon of stability, then they will need to rein in with regulation further in the future or risk losing their legitimacy: that inflation remains within target levels, if on the high end of the spectrum. Until banks are completely through writing down losses, lending is not likely to get much cheaper. In fact, with plenty of investors jumping ship to profitable commodities, raising capital for necessities like student loans are going to be harder to come by.

Analysts have projected that 10% of the lowest bracket of previous year's accepted borrowers expected not to qualify under recently tightened standards. Interest rates will reap an unprecedented level of control over the livelihoods of millions of Americans to an extent seldom seen.
About the Author
Ki is a realtor/broker in Austin Texas working with homebuyers in the Austin real estate market. His site provides users a free graphical search of the Austin MLS along with a free mortgage calculator.
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