Irish mortgage rates and ECB rates

The ECB began to raise its main lending rates in July , followed by another round of increases in September with a further set expected at the October 27th meeting.The impact on Irish mortgage borrowers has not been as straight forward as many anticipated ; existing borrowers with Tracker rates have seen a significant rise but the average new mortgage rate has actually fallen this year, reflecting both specific Irish liquidity issues and an unusual set of factors affecting the pass through of ECB rates to the Euro money market as a whole.

Half of the outstanding mortgage loans of Irish banks are at a fixed rate so those borrowers will be unaffected by money market changes, at least in the short term. In terms of variable rates 60% of those borrowers (and so 30% of all borrowers) are on Tracker rates, directly linked to the ECB refinancing rate, with an average spread of 1.05%. The refinancing rate was cut to zero in 2016 , meaning that those on Tracker rates have paid extraordinarily low borrowing costs for over six years, but that has changed; the refinancing rate has risen to 1.25% and will probably hit 2% by month end, so pushing the average Tracker rate to 3.05%.

Higher ECB rates have also pushed up rates on new mortgage loans across the zone, with the average in August rising to 2.21% from 1.29% at end-2021. Irish rates actually fell over the same period, to 2.64% from 2.69%, and are now below that of Germany, illustrating that local conditions can play a significant role.

There are two specific Irish factors at work. One is the scale of excess deposits in the banking system here, reflecting a longer term upward move in the household savings ratio, the impact of the various Lockdowns on spending and the low rate of house building, with a concomitant impact on mortgage lending, the main driver of Irish bank assets. In August, Irish household deposits amounted to €147bn (from €109bn three years earlier) while in Irish headquartered banks deposits exceeded loans by €83bn (which is probably the main reason the Central Bank has eased the controls on mortgage lending)

The average interest rate on most of these deposits is virtually zero (0.02%) so domestic banks here have a significant funding advantage over the main non-bank mortgage lenders. The latter have made significant inroads in the market of late (accounting for 13% of all new mortgage lending in 2021) but are more dependent on market rates , so offering Irish banks the opportunity to regain some market share.

Ultimately higher market rates will have an impact of course but the pass through from ECB rates to money market rates is not 100%. A huge factor is the amount of excess liquidity in the euro system, which currently stands at €4,500bn, in turn reflecting the impact of ECB long term loans to EA banks (TLTRO III) and QE .Short term money market rates would therefore be determined by the ECB’s deposit facility rate, which in theory should set a floor for rates, but that is not happening; both the overnight rate (0.658%) and the one week rate (0.67%) are well below the the 0.75% deposit rate.

How to reduce that excess liquidity? For the moment the ECB is reinvesting all its maturing bond holdings under QE and so could start to reduce the amount it reinvests , as per the US Fed. Yet that might clash with their desire to prevent any further widening of the spread in long term borrowing costs between Germany and Italy or Greece. The TLTRO has a three year maturity and can be repaid earlier by banks but that too has thrown up problems for the ECB, as the terms are such that banks are unlikely to do that; the average rate paid by banks for the loans will be substantially below the rate they can earn by simply depositing the money back at the ECB (Irish banks drew down €21bn, which has been a significant boost to their profits, with French and German banks the main beneficiaries).

Modifications to the TLTRO are widely expected at the upcoming meeting, but retrospectively changing the terms of a three year loan would not be a good look for the ECB. Changing the rate charged on excess reserves may also be on the table.

The pass through from ECB rates to the market may not be 100% but its still pretty high, so further monetary tightening from Frankfurt will have an impact on retail rates. Market expectations as to the peak in rates this cycle are volatile, shifting in response to the latest inflation release (still surprising to the upside) and indicators on the real economy(pointing to a probable recession) . Longer term fixed mortgage rates will be influenced by the 5-year swap rate in the market, and although that has fallen back to 3% from 3.25% earlier this month it was below 1.5% in August. Shorter term,one-month rates are priced to rise to 3% next year. Remember that reflects expectations about the ECB deposit rate and implies a refinancing rate of 3.5% and therefore a Tracker rate of 4.55%. These market expectations may not be fulfilled of course but we probably need some short term downside surprise in the inflation figures to placate ECB hawks and not just weak economic data.