Mortgage-backed securities are the starting point for all mortgage market pricing and the investment of choice for mortgage REITs
When the Federal Reserve talks about buying mortgage-backed securities, it’s referring to the To-Be-Announced (also know as the TBA) market. The TBA market allows loan originators to take individual loans and turn them into a homogeneous product that can be traded. TBAs settle once a month, and government mortgages (primarily FHA/VA loans) are put into Ginnie Mae securities. TBAs are broken out by coupon rate and settlement date. In the chart below, we’re looking at the Ginnie Mae 4% coupon for March delivery.
Loan originators base loan prices on the TBA market. When they offer you a loan (as a borrower), your rate is par, give or take any points you’re paying. Your originator will then sell your loan into a TBA. If you’re quoted a 4.5% mortgage rate with no points, the lender will fund your loan and then sell it for the current TBA price. In this case, the TBA closed at 105 16/32, which means your lender will make just about 5.5% before taking into account their cost of making the loan.
The Fed is the biggest buyer of TBA paper. Other buyers include sovereign wealth funds, countries that have trade surpluses with the United States, and pension funds. TBAs are a completely “upstairs” market in that they don’t trade on an exchange and most of their trading is done “on the wire” or over the phone.
MBS are flat as the Fed commits to further tapering
Mortgage-backed securities (both Fannie and Ginnie) were flat as the bond market barely moved. On Wednesday, the FOMC released the minutes from their January meeting and confirmed what most people had been thinking, that tapering is on autopilot and it will take a major change in the economy to alter the course from a $10 billion reduction every FOMC meeting.
Implications for mortgage REITs
Mortgage REITs—like Annaly Capital (NLY), American Capital (AGNC), MFA Financial (MFA), and Capstead Mortgage (CMO)—announced big drops in book value per share, as rising rates hurt the value of their mortgage-backed security holdings. The REIT sector has been de-leveraging in order to take risk off the table.
As a general rule, a lack of volatility is good for mortgage REITs and the mortgage REIT ETF (MORT) because they hedge some of their interest rate risk. Increasing volatility in interest rates increases the cost of hedging. This is because as interest rates rise, the expected maturity of the bond increases, as there will be fewer pre-payments. On the other hand, if interest rates fall, the maturity shortens due to higher pre-payment risks. Mechanically, this means mortgage REITs must adjust their hedges and buy more protection when prices are high and sell more protection when prices are low. This “buy-high, sell low” effect is called “negative convexity,” and it explains why Ginnie Mae MBS yield so much more than Treasuries that have identical credit risk (which is to say none). Investors who want to make directional bets on Treasuries should look at the iShares 20 year bond ETF (TLT).
To learn more about investing in Treasuries, see the Market Realist series Why investors should look at floating rate notes as an option.