During the first week of the new year, mortgage rates continued to be influenced by the same factors as in 2011. Stronger than expected US economic data roughly offset continued concerns about Europe, and mortgage rates ended the week nearly unchanged.
Friday’s Employment report provided further support that the US economy is gaining strength to begin the new year. Against a consensus forecast of 150K, the economy added 200K jobs in December. The Unemployment Rate unexpectedly fell to 8.5%, the lowest level since February 2009, from 8.7% in November. The decline was partly due to the increase in jobs and partly due to people dropping out of the labor force. Average Hourly Earnings, a proxy for wage growth, increased 2.1% from one year ago. This was an encouraging report in nearly every area.
While prospects in the US appear to be picking up, signs of improvement in Europe have been frustratingly slow to emerge. Bond yields in troubled countries remained at elevated levels, and European banks had to pay higher than expected costs to raise additional capital. Investors are still demanding very large premiums to lend money to European countries which are considered risky, making recovery efforts even more costly. Relatively safer assets, such as US mortgage-backed securities (MBS), continued to benefit this week from the lack of progress in Europe.