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Home  »  Mortgage Guides  »  Adjustable Rate Mortgage

Adjustable Rate Mortgage

 

A variable-rate mortgage, Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM), or tracker mortgage is a mortgage loan with the interest rate on the note periodically adjusted based on an index which reflects the cost to the lender of borrowing on the credit markets. The loan may be offered at the lender's standard variable rate / base rate. There may be a direct and legally defined link to the underlying index, but where the lender offers no specific link to the underlying market of index they can choose to increase or decrease at their discretion. The term 'variable-rate mortgage' is most common outside the United States, whilst in the United States, 'adjustable-rate mortgage' is most common, and implies a mortgage regulated by the Federal government, with limitations on charges ("caps").

In many countries, adjustable rate mortgages are the norm, and in such places, may simply be referred to as mortgages. Among the most common indices are the rates on 1-year constant-maturity Treasury (CMT) securities, the Cost of Funds Index (COFI), and the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). A few lenders use their own cost of funds as an index, rather than using other indices. This is done to ensure a steady margin for the lender, whose own cost of funding will usually be related to the index.

 
 


Consequently, payments made by the borrower may change over time with the changing interest rate (alternatively, the term of the loan may change). This is not to be confused with the graduated payment mortgage, which offers changing payment amounts but a fixed interest rate. Other forms of mortgage loan include the interest only mortgage, the fixed rate mortgage, the negative amortization mortgage, and the balloon payment mortgage.

Adjustable rates transfer part of the interest rate risk from the lender to the borrower. They can be used where unpredictable interest rates make fixed rate loans difficult to obtain. The borrower benefits if the interest rate falls but loses if the interest rate increases. The borrower benefits from reduced margins to the underlying cost of borrowing compared to fixed or capped rate mortgages.
 
 

In some countries, banks may publish a prime lending rate which is used as the index. The index may be applied in one of three ways: directly, on a rate plus margin basis, or based on index movement. A directly applied index means that the interest rate changes exactly with the index. In other words, the interest rate on the note exactly equals the index. Of the above indices, only the contract rate index is applied directly.

To apply an index on a rate plus margin basis means that the interest rate will equal the underlying index plus a margin. The margin is specified in the note and remains fixed over the life of the loan. For example, a mortgage interest rate may be specified in the note as being LIBOR plus 2%, 2% being the margin and LIBOR being the index. The final way to apply an index is on a movement basis. In this scheme, the mortgage is originated at an agreed upon rate, then adjusted based on the movement of the index. Unlike direct or index plus margin, the initial rate is not explicitly tied to any index; the adjustments are tied to an index.

 

ARMs generally permit borrowers to lower their initial payments if they are willing to assume the risk of interest rate changes. In many countries, banks or similar financial institutions are the primary originators of mortgages. For banks that are funded from customer deposits, the customer deposits will typically have much shorter terms than residential mortgages. If a bank were to offer large volumes of mortgages at fixed rates but to derive most of its funding from deposits (or other short-term sources of funds), the bank would have an asset-liability mismatch: in this case, it would be running the risk that the interest income from its mortgage portfolio would be less than it needed to pay its depositors. In the United States, some argue that the savings and loan crisis was in part caused by this problem, that the savings and loans companies had short-term deposits and long-term, fixed rate mortgages, and were caught when Paul Volcker raised interest rates in the early 1980s. Therefore, banks and other financial institutions offer adjustable rate mortgages because it reduces risk and matches their sources of funding.

Banking regulators pay close attention to asset-liability mismatches to avoid such problems, and place tight restrictions on the amount of long-term fixed-rate mortgages that banks may hold (in relation to their other assets). To reduce this risk, many mortgage originators will sell many of their mortgages, particularly the mortgages with fixed rates.

For the borrower, adjustable rate mortgages may be less expensive, but at the price of bearing higher risk. Many ARMs have 'teaser periods', which are relatively short initial fixed-rate periods (typically one month to one year) when the ARM bears an interest rate that is substantially below the 'fully indexed' rate. The teaser period may induce some borrowers to view an ARM as more of a bargain than it really represents. A low teaser rate predisposes an ARM to sustain above-average payment increases.

 

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