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Low Mortgage Rates are a Ruse—Nice if You Can Get 'Em

Mortgage rates down
Mortgage rates down

For weeks now we've been touting new record-low rates on 15- and 30-year fixed mortgages.

They're floating around four percent, dipping below four when Europe explodes, then back just above four percent this week, as the stock market makes a turnaround.

Whatever the exact daily rate, the message is that the rates are a steal, and they should make home refinancing and home buying a steal.

Not so much.

The problem is that these low rates are not going to the borrowers who need them the most, and even worse, these rates should actually be lower than they are.

“When there’s a rush of refinancers, lenders become flooded with volume and can adjust rates to slow their pipelines and increase margins,” says LendingTree Chairman and CEO Doug Lebda. “It becomes a matter of supply and demand, which unfortunately means borrowers are seeing higher rates than what’s being reported.”

Lending Tree looked at spreads between the 10-year treasury rate and the average national rate on the 30-year fixed a few weeks ago, when rates were nearing record lows.

"The 10-year treasury rate was at 1.88 percent, while the average national [mortgage] rate was at 4.03 percent. An alarming 215 basis point spread (compared to the 153 average basis point spread seen over the past 10 years) means that the full benefit of these low rates aren’t getting to consumers."

While mortgage volume is at historically low levels, there has also been a mass exodus of mortgage lenders from the market, partially due to new government compensation policies that went into effect last Spring.

"It had the effect of driving some of the best and most qualified loan officers out of the business," says Lebda.

To make matters worse, the consumers who are getting the best rates are those who need those low rates the least.

"Two of every three mortgage refinancings done by banks and guaranteed by the GSEs since 2008 have gone to higher income households," writes Christopher Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics, who also notes that the bulk of refis have gone to newer, "higher coupon" loans.

"The behavior of the GSEs and the top four banks – JP Morgan , Bank of America , Citigroup and Wells Fargo – which prevent lower income Americans with performing loans to exercise their contractual right to refinance borders on the criminal," adds Whalen in a blog on Reuters.com.

Despite a bump up in rates last week, there was a near 10 percent surge in government refinance applications, that is FHA loans. That's because borrowers who are turned down for Fannie and Freddie loans are moved to FHA, which has lower down payment and credit requirements.

The government is supposedly now mulling a program to get more borrowers refinanced at low rates through Fannie and Freddie, but given everything I've just noted, the practical hurdles to that will likely be insurmountable. Don't get me started on the political hurdles.

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