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Record Low Mortgage Rates, Rising Pessimism on Housing

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The numbers don't add up.

Mortgage giant Freddie Mac reports the rate on the 30-year fixed hit a new record lowof 4.12 percent, at the exact moment that cohort Fannie Mae released its August housing survey showing ever more Americans are pessimistic about the housing market. 27 percent of those surveyed said home prices would drop further and 22 percent expect their financial situations to worsen over the next year. Those are the highest levels for both indicators since August of last year.

So if more Americans can save more money by refinancing their mortgages (likely their single largest debt), and more Americans can potentially buy a home, given the low rates, then why are they so pessimistic about housing going forward as well as their personal finances? I got the answer loud and clear when I Tweeted the new low rates.

"If you can get it," went the first Mention. "Too bad nobody can access them," Tweeted another on the low rates. You get the picture. Low rates are great, if you can qualify. Most today can't because they either have no equity left in their current home or they don't have the credit score or down payment required to get that great rate.

Or perhaps we are overlooking the fundamental reality that mortgage rates no longer matter when there is a complete lack of confidence in the housing market and the overall economy. Whatever the rate on the 30-year-fixed, nobody wants to buy a house right now.

"I believe the public was looking at the U.S. debt, deficit, and the ensuing political struggle with one eye, and looking at Europe and their sovereign debt issues with the other eye, and saying: ‘This is not what we want,’” writes Fannie Mae's chief economist Doug Duncan.

So tonight President Obama will give his big speechto the nation on the economy and supposedly include some kind of fix for housing. The leading proposal is for some kind of federal refinancing program through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the FHA for borrowers who are current on their mortgages. It would be costly to investors and do little to help juice the housing market, according to just about every analyst who has considered it.

Which all leads me to conclude that housing's recovery will not be founded on anything having to do with housing; as I have argued previously, over and over and over, housing's recovery is all about jobs and consumer confidence. It is about the bigger economy, which needs to improve before anyone can or will want to buy a house. The trouble of course is that historically, economic recovery is often driven by housing, not the other way around.

Questions? Comments? RealtyCheck@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @Diana_Olick

  • Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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