If there's one question being kicked around the barbecue more than any other this summer, it's probably this: should I lock in my variable rate mortgage?
But with interest rates bouncing around, to the point where they make a mortgage-rate chart look more like the diagram of a rollercoaster, homeowners can be forgiven if they are hesitant.
After all, every time mortgage rates rise, they seem to come back down again. Recently, Royal Bank tried to raise mortgage rates, increasing the cost of its five-year fixed mortgage by 0.15 per cent, only to quietly lower them a few weeks later.
On the variable side, rates have been stable, holding at 2.1 per cent for so long it seems like the new normal. They are priced based on the Bank of Canada rate. And with the U.S. economy slowing (Alberta created more jobs than the U.S. did in the last quarter), it's little wonder that Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney decided not to raise interest rates this week - and it's doubtful he will anytime soon.
While the variable rate has held steady for months, fixed-rate mortgages are far more difficult to predict. Fixed mortgages are primarily priced off of the five-year bond, and as a result are subject to volatility in the bond market, which is being whipsawed by the European sovereign debt crisis.
As more European countries edge toward default, interest rates have risen on their bonds, in some cases to more than 10 per cent. Many investors, however, fearing widespread defaults, have fled to the safe haven of the U.S. bond market. In the process, that has kept U.S. rates in the 2.3 per cent range, and helped keep mortgages rates low in this country, with a five-year fixed term mortgage going as low as 3.29 per cent.
But these bedrock-low rates could rise quickly if the U.S. does not solve its own debt crisis. President Obama has asked Congress to lift the country's debt ceiling — the amount the country can borrow to meet its obligations. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is refusing to grant the increase until Obama makes deep cuts to government expenditures.
They have until Aug. 2 to solve the impasse and if nothing is done, the U.S. will default on the latest round of payments it has to make on its debts. Bond rating agencies have already said they will downgrade U.S. bonds if a default occurs. If that happens, it will drive up interest rates in the U.S. and push rates up on Canadian mortgages in the process.
"If Europe gets into trouble and the U.S. gets into trouble, money will be looking elsewhere," says Kelvin Mangaroo, founder and president of RateSupermarket.ca. "Interest rates have been bouncing around and we might continue to see that until the U.S. credit situation gets sorted out."
Could the uncertainty in Europe actually drive interest rates lower in Canada?
If Obama and Congressional Republicans come to an agreement, there could be a sudden flight to quality as investors buy U.S. bonds. That could drive down interest rates on the U.S. five-year bond, and reduce rates on Canadian fixed mortgages.
"There is always the possibility that they could drop a bit still," said Mangaroo. "They've been lower before, so there is no reason that they can't go back."
With so much volatility in the market, should you lock in your mortgage? It's hard to say, but studies have concluded you are better off holding a variable mortgage. Then again, those studies also include periods of extremely high interest rates, but with rates now at historic lows they would only go marginally lower.
In fact, you can purchase a 10-year mortgage for just 4.84 per cent and a 25-year at 8.35 per cent. In effect, you could lock your mortgage costs in at today's historic lows and that would pay dividends long after the crisis in Europe and the U.S. has passed and rates are rising again.
Whether to lock in or not is the most common question Mangaroo gets at RateSupermarket.ca. About one-third of Canadian mortgages are variable, but Mangaroo says, "It all comes down to risk profile. And interest rates will be going up, so if you're uncomfortable with that, you should look at a fixed five-year term which is at 3.5 per cent."
But one thing is certain. If you hold a variable mortgage, you can breathe a little easier knowing Carney won't be raising rates anytime soon. Ian Lee, director of the MBA Program at Carleton University, says this is because of the ongoing failure by the European leadership to address, let alone resolve, the growing Eurozone debt crisis and the ongoing inability of the U.S. political leadership to seriously address their annual $1.5 trillion deficit and $14 trillion debt.
"This clearly suggests," says Lee, "that Governor Carney will think many times before raising interest rates now or in the fall."