Andrew Allentuck, Financial Post Published: Thursday, May 06, 2010
Taking on a mortgage is a big commitment. Every buyer who uses a mortgage has the choice of floating or going with a fixed rate that often costs a couple of percentage points higher per year. Today, for example, one can get variable rates at an average rate of 2.34% while five year closed rates average 5.27%, according to Fiscal Agents Financial Services Group in Oakville, Ontario. Negotiated rates can be lower.
If rates never changed very much, there would be no contest – the floating rate deal would win. But rates do rise and fall and therein lies the borrower’s dilemma.
Borrowers with kids and an aging car fear that their ability to pay interest rates twice or thrice the current floating rates are limited. “The test is liquidity and risk tolerance,” says Derek Moran, a registered financial planner who heads Smarter Financial Planning Ltd. in Kelowna, B.C. “People with ample liquidity can afford to take a chance on rising mortgage rates. It follows that those who lack liquidity feel some pressure to avoid drastic interest rate increases.”
The point is not merely academic, for Canada, in spite of recent mortgage rate increases, is still at a relatively low point of rates over the last four decades. “There is more room for rates to go up than down,” Moran points out.
The cost of making a decision to float or go fixed varies with the rate differences.
In 2008, Moshe Milevsky, Associate Professor of Finance at the Schulich School of Business at York University, and Brandon Walker, a research associate at the Individual Finance and Insurance Decisions Centre in Toronto, published a study that measured the direct and opportunity costs of going with either choice. “Over the long run, homeowners really do pay extra for fixed rate mortgages,” they concluded.
The reason is intuitive. Lenders do not want to take the chance that when they have to refinance a loan that they will be stuck paying more than they are getting.
Mismatching what they lend with the cost of what they borrow can cut their profits and even lead to insolvency. So lenders attach what amounts to an interest rate insurance fee and bundle that into the price of money they lend on fixed terms.
Milevsky and Walker confirmed this explanation. “The study showed that a positive Maturity Value of Savings [the value of investing the difference between floating and fixed mortgages in 91-day T-bills] was positive the majority of the time, so the homeowner saved by using a variable-rate mortgage.”
The amount of money that the homeowner can save by taking a chance on floating rates varied in the Milevsky and Walker study, depending on the time periods in question. But the average amount was impressive: $20,630 as of 2008. Put another way, floating allowed borrowers to cut the time it would take to pay off the mortgages by a year or more, in some cases as much as five years on 15-year amortizations.
Rational calculation and personal feeling are, of course, different things. A person with a fixed income and a great deal of debt may be reluctant to put a rate casino between himself and the lender and will therefore go with certainty, even at a high price.
It is also a matter of experience. “First time buyers tend to pay close attention to the cost of the mortgage,” says Laura Parsons, Areas Manager of Specialized Sales – which includes mortgages, for the BMO Financial Group in Calgary. For them, the appeal of locking in is relatively high. Their mortgages are new, the amounts they owe are higher than they would be 10 or 15 years in future when the mortgage is substantially reduced, and their incomes, often early in their adult lives, are lower than they will be in future.
“First time home buyers are net debtors and they don’t want to endanger their finances,” suggests Adrian Mastracci, a portfolio manager and financial planner who heads KCM Wealth Management Inc. in Vancouver.
There are other strategies that the buyer can use to provide some rate insurance without taking on what Milevsky and Walker have demonstrated as the high cost of peace of mind.
“The buyer can take a variable rate mortgage but set payments higher than the minimum required” says Parsons. “That could be at the 5 year closed rate, which would mean a faster paydown and growing asset security while still keeping the low cost of the variable rate mortgage. Faster paydown is itself cost insurance if interest rates do rise.”
Banks are nothing if not inventive in helping clients cope with the fixed versus floating dilemma. For example, TD Bank offers to give 5% of the amount borrowed on a five or six year fixed rate residential mortgage to the borrower. The program, aptly dubbed the “5% CashBack Mortgage,” implicitly acknowledges that fixed rate loans can be more costly than variable rate ones.
For its part, RBC has a RateCapper Mortgage that builds on the initial low cost of a variable rate mortgage but limits the cost if rates shoot up. On a five year mortgage, the borrower will never pay more than the capped rate and if the variable rate, based on the prime rate, drops below the RateCapper mortgage maximum, the interest rate charged to the borrower also drops. The plan is a compromise and spreads interest rate risk. Many other lenders allow borrowers to mix fixed and variable rates, thus accomplishing a similar goal.
Plan selection, it turns out, is gender-related. According to a BMO survey, men, 44% of the time, are more likely than women to choose a fixed rate mortgage than women, who make that choice only 28% of the time. Women, it turns out, tend to make the better choice, for as BMO’s analysis shows, “fixed rates were advantageous during only two periods – through the late 1970s and in the late 1980s, in both cases ahead of a period rising interest rates, as is the case now.”
So where are interest rates headed? The yield curve, a line that links interest rates for periods of time from 1 day to 30 years, implies that rates will rise, but not very much.
There is no sense that we are returning to a period of double digit rates. Moreover, there are deflationary forces at work, notes Patricia Croft, chief economist of RBC Global Asset Management in Toronto. “The present crisis in European finance and the potential fizzling out of the present recovery in North American capital markets could presage falling inflation and even disinflation – the subsidence of rising prices and interest rates,” she explains..
BMO forecasts that the rising Canadian dollar will put downward pressure on consumer prices, reflecting the fact that much of what Canadians eat and use is imported. Inflation could flare up, BMO’s economists say, but there is a balanced risk of declining prices. For now, the Bank of Canada is being very cautious in its interest rate management commitments. For those who are strapped for cash, personal circumstance may dictate the choice of a fixed rate. But for everyone else, the folly of trying to make interest rate predictions over a business cycle and to predict both the short term rates and the long term rates along the yield curve should be apparent. No promises, of course, but the odds of saving money are with borrowers who choose variable rate plans or those that emulate them.