Interest rate hike not expected to hurt car, home sales

Detroit News staff and wire services

Auto industry experts don’t expect Wednesday’s increase in the interest rate by the Federal Reserve to have much of an immediate impact on new car sales, which are expected to set a record this year.

“The Fed’s decision reflects what we have already experienced in the auto industry. The U.S. economy is performing strongly and auto sales are at a new peak,” General Motors Co. spokesman Dan Flores said in a statement. “We don’t expect the rate hike to have any measurable impact on new vehicles sales given the underlying strength of the U.S. economy.”

Ford said in a statement that “any near-term impact on sales would be minimal. Increasing interest rates would be a reflection of strength in the economy, which would be consistent with the robust sales we are seeing in our largest and most profitable market.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV declined to comment.

The central bank said it was lifting its key rate by a quarter-point to a range of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent. Its move ends an extraordinary, seven-year period of near-zero borrowing rates and is the first rate hike in nine years. The Fed’s statement suggested that rates would remain historically low well into the future, saying it expects “only gradual increases.”

Research firm J.D. Power predicted that a 0.5 percent increase in auto loan rates would cut demand for new cars, trucks and crossovers by an estimated 150,000 vehicles over a year; it did not analyze a 0.25 percent hike.

“The auto industry will need to determine whether to accept the potential sales risk or take action to protect sales by not passing the additional costs on to consumers,” the company said. “Tools at their disposal include: reducing prices, increasing incentives and subventing interest rates.”

Most consumers won’t change their car buying plans over a small interest rate hike, according to a J.D. Power survey this month of 2,301 Americans considering buying a new vehicle in the next year. If interest rates were to go up by 1 percent, 80 percent of consumers looking for a new vehicle would not change their buying plans, while 13 percent would look for a cheaper vehicle and 7 percent would consider a used one, according to the poll.

Over time, however, future interest rate hikes could have more of an effect on auto sales.

AlixPartners, a business advisory firm, says the average auto loan is $460 a month. If average auto loan interest rates were to rise from 3 percent to 4 percent, it would mean buyers have $1,000 less purchasing power, while a hike from 3 percent to 6 percent would equate to $2,500 less in purchasing power.

Jack Nerad, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said rising rates will hurt home values and that could negatively affect consumers’ perception of their own finances.

“When people don’t feel positive about their financial situations they don’t buy cars,” he said in a statement. “So will a quarter point rise in interest rates cause a drastic downturn in car sales? No, but it could signal we are nearing or have reached a peak.”

Rate hit low in ’08

The Fed’s decision to raise interest rates from record lows set at the depths of the 2008 financial crisis heralds slightly higher rates on some loans such as credit cards and home equity credit lines.

But rates on home mortgages and commercial development financing, like on car loans, aren’t expected to rise much soon.

The Fed coupled its first rate hike in nine years with a signal that further increases will likely be made slowly, as the economy strengthens further and inflation rises from undesirably low levels.

“The Fed reaffirmed that the pace of rate hikes would be slow,” James Marple, senior economist at TD Economics wrote in a research note. “The Fed’s expectations for rate hikes next year are set alongside a relatively cautious and entirely achievable economic outlook.”

Wednesday’s action reflects the central bank’s belief that the economy has finally regained enough strength 6½ years after the Great Recession ended to withstand higher borrowing rates.

“The Fed’s decision today reflects our confidence in the U.S. economy,” ChairJanet Yellen said at a news conference

Investors’ immediate reaction to the Fed’s announcement, which was widely anticipated, was muted. Stocks moved up, with the Dow closing up 224 points. Higher interest rates in the U.S. tend to cause the dollar to strengthen against other currencies.

The bond market didn’t react much. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note held steady at 2.27 percent.

‘A big yawn’

As for the housing market, don’t expect an immediate rise in interest rates for 30-year fixed mortgages, which have been averaging in the 4 percent to 4.25 percent range for a couple years, said Bob Walters, chief economist for Quicken Loans Inc. Detroit-based Quicken is the nation’s largest online home mortgage lender.

He said the interest rates in refinancing should remain the same, too.

“The Fed did essentially what they have been telling the world for a number of months,” he said.

Whether interest rates on mortgages will stay the same in the long run depends on the feds’ prediction that economy will continue to strengthen, Walters said.

Those who work on commercial mortgages didn’t expect much change either.

“Honestly, the reaction to today’s action is a big yawn the markets have anticipated this for months.” said David Bernard, founder of the Bernard Financial Group, the state’s largest commercial mortgage banking firm. The rate changed for commercial lending months ago and it’s not expected to rise again due to Wednesday’s fed rate hike, Bernard said.

The Fed’s benchmark rate doesn’t directly affect them. Long-term mortgages, for example, tend to track 10-year U.S. Treasury yields, which will likely stay low as long as inflation does and investors keep buying Treasurys.

Shortly after the Fed’s announcement, major banks began announcing that they were raising their prime lending rate from 3.25 percent to 3.50 percent. The prime rate is a benchmark for some types of consumer loans such as home equity loans. Wells Fargo was the first bank to announce the rate hike.

For months, Chair Janet Yellen and other Fed officials have said they expected any rate hikes to be small and gradual. But nervous investors have been looking for further assurances.

An updated economic forecast released with the policy statement showed that 14 of the 17 Fed officials foresee four or fewer rate hikes in 2016. That is in line with the consensus view of economists that the Fed’s target for the federal funds rate — the that banks charge on overnight loans — will end next year around 1 percent.

The Fed’s action was approved by a unanimous vote of 10-0, giving Yellen a victory in achieving consensus.

The Fed statement struck a generally more upbeat tone in its assessment of the economy. It cited “considerable improvement” in the job market. And it expressed more confidence that inflation, which has been running well below the Fed’s 2 percent target, would begin rising. It suggested that this would happen as the effects of declines in energy and import prices fade and the job market strengthens further.

In 2008, fed officials led by Ben Bernanke were struggling to contain a devastating financial crisis that triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The recession officially ended in June 2009. But unemployment kept rising, peaking at 10 percent before starting to fall. The jobless rate is now at a seven-year low of 5 percent, close to the Fed’s target for full employment.

Detroit News staff writers Louis Aguilar, Melissa Burden and Michael Wayland contributed.