$136.8 billion in foreign US asset purchases keep mortgage rates low

Foreign demand for U.S. assets significantly affects interest rates

The U.S. Treasury measures foreign purchases of U.S. financial assets through the Treasury International Capital (or TIC) report. Foreign demand for U.S. financial assets helped push the U.S. interest rates to record lows last summer. Fears of a European contagion fed a flight to quality, which pushed the ten-year yield down to below 1.4%. While that sort of yield is certainly paltry versus what we’ve historically been able to earn on Treasuries, compared to the rest of the world, 1.4% was competitive. The Fed’s withdrawal of asset purchases has had a benign effect on the markets—at least so far.

$136.8 billion in foreign US asset purchases keep mortgage rates low

The other driver of foreign purchases of U.S. assets is the trade deficit. When our trade partners receive dollars in exchange for their goods, they have two choices. They can use the dollars to purchase U.S. goods and services or they can use the dollars to purchase U.S. financial assets. Large export-driven economies like China’s are more apt to run large trade surpluses, which means they’re forced to hold a lot of U.S. assets.

Mortgage rates stay steady despite the machinations of foreign investors and the Fed

In April, foreign investors bought a net $136.8 billion of U.S. assets. While this number can be volatile, this is a big inflow. To put these numbers in perspective, at its peak, the Fed was purchasing $45 billion worth of Treasuries a month. As foreign investors have changed their net purchases of MBS (mortgage-backed securities), and the Fed has reduced MBS purchases, mortgage rates have held remarkably steady, as the origination business has gotten more competitive and margins have fallen.

Implications for mortgage REITs

The absolute level of interest rates is a prime driver of mortgage REITs like American Capital Agency (AGNC), Annaly Capital (NLY), MFA Financial (MFA), Hatteras (HTS), or Capstead (CMO). Mortgage-backed securities closely track the level of long-term Treasuries, although they’re not quite as sensitive.

Falling mortgage-backed security prices hit mortgage REIT book values across the board. Nearly every REIT experienced a sizable drop in book value. The differences came between those that were highly leveraged and those with shorter duration. If foreign investors return to selling mortgage-backed securities, then the REITs will certainly feel the pain.

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