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27 Mar

The Fixed vs Variable Interest Rate Decision

Buying & Refinancing a Home

Posted by: Garth Chapman

Fixed Vs Variable – How to decide…which way to go?

The choice between Fixed and Variable interest rate is one that many borrowers ask about.

This is a very common question and you are not alone. First, let’s help you to understand the differences between the two types of mortgages.   A Variable Rate Mortgage is where the interest rate charged and your monthly payment will normally change when there is any change to prime rate.  The prime rate can change up to 8 times per year.  A Fixed Rate Mortgage is where neither your payment or the interest rate will change at all during the term of your mortgage.

Both fixed and variable mortgages have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of a Variable Rate Mortgage:

  • When rates go down you benefit from that immediately and will see your payment drop – this means more towards the principal and less interest so your mortgage is paid off faster!
  • Historically variable mortgages have been significantly lower in rate than fixed mortgages
  • Variable rates offer you the freedom to convert at any time to a fixed rate mortgages especially when you see rates rising.

Advantages of a Fixed Rate Mortgage:

  • The fixed rate offers the security of locking in your rate
  • You may prefer peace of mind – the same mortgage payment every month with a guarantee not to change for the term
  • You will know exactly how much principle and interest you are paying with each payment.

There are at least three key elements to be considered when making this decision.

1) The fixed rate premium is the cost of taking the security of a (higher) fixed rate over a (currently lower) Variable rate. The fixed rate is always somewhat higher than the Variable rate.  Think of that rate premium as you would an insurance premium.  You pay the higher rate for the security of that rate not changing during the current term of the mortgage.

The spread does move around, and when it is less than 0.80% it is generally considered to be a ‘good buy’.  In May of 2012 we saw that spread drop to an all-time low, so low that we converted four existing mortgages from Variable to Fixed.  At that time Variable rates were at about Prime – 0.30% which translated to 2.70% and the lowest fixed rates for a 5-year term was 2.79% making the spread under 0.10%.  The spread between Fixed and Variable have remained below the norm from mid-2012 through to mid-2017, when it began increasing along with both Fixed and Variable mortgage rates.  In April of 2017 we converted 4 more mortgages to 5-year fixed rates because we believed fixed rate increases were upon us, and that the Prime Rate would also be increasing.

So on the financial side of this choice you can determine the cost of the rate premium in dollars per month or year, or during the term.  Then decide if the cost of that premium is worth paying.

2) Increased payment risk tolerance is about how well you are able to handle an increase in mortgage payments, which would be created by an interest rate hike following a Prime Rate increase).  I break this risk tolerance down into two components.

Financial risk tolerance is about your financial capacity to absorb an increase in mortgage payments.  This is something you can assess by reviewing your monthly budget. Less tolerance may point you to a Fixed rate mortgage.

Emotional risk tolerance is about how you sleep at night, and by that I mean do you worry about interest rates and your payment going up, and does your level of worry create any stress in your life?  If it does, then you may be more emotionally suited to a Fixed rate mortgage.

3) Qualifying Rate vs Actual rate of the mortgage contemplated.

You must qualify at the much higher Bank of Canada Benchmark rate when taking a Variable Rate mortgage, so that is something to confirm early on that will fit your qualifying criteria.

Understanding what drives Variable rates and Fixed rates

Your Variable Mortgage Rates are driven by your bank’s Prime Rate which is set individually by each Bank.  They normally (but not always) move in sync with changes in the Overnight Rate, which is set by the Bank of Canada (BoC) and is used as a basis for one-day (or “overnight”) borrowing between the major lenders and financial institutions.  The BoC is responsible for monetary policy, the goal of which is to keep inflation near the mid-point of a 1 to 3 per cent target range, ideally 2%.  The BoC is equally concerned with significant movements in the inflation rate, both above the 2% mid-point and below it.  When demand is strong, it can push the economy against the limits of its capacity to produce.  This tends to raise inflation above the midpoint, so the BoC will raise interest rates to cool off the economy.  When demand is weak, inflationary pressures are likely to ease.  The BoC will then lower interest rates to stimulate the economy and absorb economic slack.

So when the economy heats up and there is a threat that inflation could get beyond the 1 to 3 per cent target the BoC may increase the overnight rate, which drives the Prime Rate. The schedule of dates when the BoC reviews and sets the Overnight Rate is found here http://www.bankofcanada.ca/core-functions/monetary-policy/key-interest-rate/

Fixed Mortgage Rates are driven by the Bond markets

Typically, when bond rates (also known as the bond yield) go up, interest rates go up as well. And vice versa. Don’t confuse this with bond prices, which have an inverse relationship with interest rates.

Investors turn to bonds as a safe investment when the economic outlook is poor. When purchases of bonds increase, the associated yield falls, and so do mortgage rates. But when the economy is expected to do well, investors jump into stocks, forcing bond prices lower and pushing the yield (and mortgage rates) higher.

The spread between 5-year Government of Canada Bonds and 5-year mortgage rates varies within a range that has fluctuated in recent years.  You can follow the 5-year Bond Yield in Canada on the BoC website and you will notice that a period of Bond yield increases or drops will almost always be followed by a corresponding change in fixed rates for mortgages.

If I choose a Variable rate and I want to be able to convert that to a Fixed rate, how will I know when it is time to convert to a fixed rate?

Bond Yields and the Prime Rate don’t move in lock-step, so if you choose a Variable rate then you will need a mechanism or methodology to decide when it is time to convert that Variable rate to a Fixed rate. Without one you will more than likely end up making the switch long after you would like to have done so, and you will pay more. that is because we tend to make such financial decisions when laden with emotions such as fear, and we either panic and move too soon or we freeze and don’t act soon enough or at all.

So to manage that decision I strongly recommend that (to use a stock trading term) you set two ‘stop-loss’ orders to act as your trigger points to make the change to Fixed rate. One is your Variable trigger, that being when the Prime Rate reaches ‘x’%. The other is your Fixed trigger, that being when the 5-year (or any other term) reaches ‘y’%. Using those two management mechanisms will ensure you don’t miss the boat.

If you want to be even more sophisticated about this, you could review the Stop-loss rates annually, remembering that as time goes by without significant change in the Prime Rate you will have built up a nice buffer against the cost of an increase during the term of the mortgage.

You can follow what the best market rates are here http://garthchapman.ca/

The schedule of dates when the BoC reviews and sets the Overnight Rate is found here http://www.bankofcanada.ca/core-functions/monetary-policy/key-interest-rate/

I hope that gives you some clarity on this complex subject, and on how to make and then manage your own interest rate decision.