In the midst of plunging long-term rates that threaten to clobber adjustable-mortgage investors, banks and thrifts got some good news last week.
New-home sales are booming, the Department of Commerce reported. Some analysts say loans to buy new and existing homes could cushion the blow dealt to thrifts by the growing refinancing boom.
Homeowners-many with the adjustable-rate loans typically held by thrifts-are taking advantage of low long-term interest rates to refinance into cheap fixed-rate loans.
Thrifts "have a source of business that was largely absent in 1993," during the last refinancing boom, said analyst Charlotte A. Chamberlain of Jefferies & Co., Los Angeles.
"Typically people tend to reach beyond their immediate means when they buy a house. The ARM market allows them to buy more house for the same mortgage payment," Ms. Chamberlain said, explaining why she thinks homebuyers would take out adjustables when rates on 30-year mortgages hover around 7%.
Moreover, borrowers with some credit problems also find adjustables easier to get, she said.
Though cheaper at first, adjustables can become more expensive than fixed-rate loans when, as now, short- and long-term rates aren't far apart.
Whether they take out adjustable or fixed mortgages, Americans are capitalizing on low interest rates; they bought new homes at a faster clip in November than in any other single month since April 1986, according to last week's government data.
New single-family homes were sold at an annualized pace of 830,000 units in November. The number is seasonally adjusted.
Paul C. Taylor, senior economist at America's Community Bankers, predicted that home sales will be strong through the first quarter, as U.S. homebuyers take advantage of the flight of capital from Asia to the United States and the resulting low rates.
"If these rates stay down, it will be one of the three best years to take out a mortgage in the last 30," Mr. Taylor said.
New- and existing-home sales exceeded expectations all last year. November's sales pace was 5% above October's revised rate of 790,000 homes.
The median price of new homes sold in November was $140,000.
At month's end, the seasonally adjusted estimate of new homes for sale was 285,000, a 4.2-month supply at the current sales pace.
Sales were up in all regions except the West, where they fell 6.3%, to an annualized pace of 207,000.