mortgage

Adjustable-rate mortgage indexes explained

About one in five mortgage applicants nowadays gets an adjustable-rate mortgage, or ARM. The hardest-to-understand element of an ARM is the index.

When you get an ARM, two main factors determine the rate you pay: the index and the margin. The index is a rate set by market forces and published by a neutral third party. The margin is an agreed-upon number of percentage points that is added to the index to determine your rate.

A thorough mortgage shopper will run across a bunch of acronyms to denote various ARM indexes, such as COFI, LIBOR, MAT and CMT. Each index responds at its own peculiar pace to the economy's ups and downs.

Indexes can be divided into two broad categories: those based upon rate averages and those based upon more volatile spot rates. There is some overlap between the two categories. ARMs indexed to average rates tend to move more slowly, in rather gradual steps, whether the markets are rising or falling. ARMs based on spot rates go up and down abruptly.

Larry Goldstone, president of Thornburg Mortgage, a portfolio lender that focuses principally on ARMs, says ARMs based on averages tend to have higher margins than ARMs based on spot rates.

Someone who gets an ARM indexed to rate averages "gets one benefit and one drawback," Goldstone says. "The benefit is that, in a changing rate environment, an average index will move more slowly, so the payment changes more slowly. The drawback is that the margin typically is higher, and so the rate you pay is higher."

Indexes based on average rates include the 11th District Cost of Funds Index, or COFI, and the 12-month moving Treasury average, (variously called the MTA and the MAT, for monthly average Treasury).

Of indexes based on spot rates, among the most popular is the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate, for London Interbank Offered Rate. Then there is the constant maturity Treasury, or CMT, index, which comes from a short-term average that acts more like a spot rate. Other spot indexes are based on the prime rate and yields on certificates of deposit.

One way to compare ARMs with different index options is to look at their fluctuations in a graph. That will help you understand how rapidly and how much the rates change.

Here is a rundown of some of the popular types of adjustable-rate mortgages, how they work and who they are suited for:

Popular types of adjustable-rate mortgages:

  • 11th District Cost of Funds Index (COFI) index
  • 12-month Treasury average (MTA or MAT) indexes
  • London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) indexes
  • Constant-maturity Treasury (CMT) indexes

11th District Cost of Funds Index, or COFI, index: Rates on COFI-indexed mortgages move up and down slowly. With most COFI-based loans, the rate is adjusted every month and the monthly payment is adjusted once a year. This means that some borrowers can end up owing more than they borrowed if their payments don't cover all the interest due, a phenomenon called "negative amortization."

COFI-based loans are indexed to the cost of funds for the 11th district of the Federal Home Loan Bank system. The 11th district consists of banks based in Arizona, California and Nevada. The cost of funds index is a weighted average of the interest that member banks pay on money they borrow, mostly on customers' checking and savings accounts.

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