The silver lining in all this economic upheaval lately: low interest rates on consumer borrowing.
Mortgage rates are at or near record lows, causing a jump in refinancing. Credit cards rates remain largely flat. And new car loans have been inching downward.
But whether consumers will be able to take advantage of these low rates — or even want to — is uncertain. The best rates often are available to only the most creditworthy customers. And recent events, including the downgrading of the nation's credit rating, have shaken consumer confidence to the point where many might not want to take on more debt just yet, no matter how much rates decline.
But fence sitters might not have to rush their borrowing decisions.
"The question is, how long will these rates stay down?" says Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute.
Earlier this year, when the recovery seemed stronger, Clinch figured rates would rise, along with inflation, early in 2012. Given recent events and the international economic uncertainty, the economist now predicts low rates could be with us until 2013.
Here are some of the recent trends in rates:
Mortgages Frightened investors recently fled to Treasury bonds for safety. As a result, the yield fell on those bonds, which influence mortgage rates.
The average 15-year fixed rate loan fell to 3.5 percent last week, the lowest level since 1991, when mortgage giant Freddie Mac began tracking it. Freddie Mac also reported that the 30-year fixed rate loan dropped to 4.32 percent, the lowest it has been all year.
To get the best rates, mortgage specialists say, consumers must have a minimum FICO credit score of 720 or 740 out of a possible 850.
The low rates have led to renewed interest in refinancing, even among those who just did so just a few years ago, says Erin Lantz, director of Zillow Mortgage Marketplace.
One potential roadblock: A lack of equity in the house. Generally, borrowers need 20 percent equity in their home to refinance, says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with Bankrate.com. And with falling home values, many borrowers don't meet that threshold.
Lantz says some homeowners are applying savings to pay down their mortgage balance to boost their equity and qualify for a refinancing.
Credit cards Almost all credit cards these days carry a variable rate, and last week the average rate ticked up slightly, to 14.42 percent, according to Bankrate.
"They've been basically hovering at the same level for the past couple of months," says Bill Hardekopf, chief executive of LowCards.com, a credit card comparison site.
Hardekopf says a credit card rate is based on two components: An index and a margin. One index often used is the prime rate, which hasn't moved since late 2008, he says. The margin is the extra interest tacked on by card issuers for the risk they take when making the short-term loan.
Hardekopf says card issuers could increase the rate if consumers begin struggling, the economy weakens or banks see their profits shrink.
Consumers will qualify for the best rates if their credit score is in the high 700s, Hardekopf says.
Auto loans The average rate for a four-year, new-car loan dipped to 5.54 percent last week, according to Bankrate, while a five-year loan settled at 5.57 percent.
"There are a lot of competing auto loan offers out there," McBride says. Consumers can find rates around 3 percent for new-car loans and 4 percent for used-car loans, he says.
Borrowing conditions today are much better than in 2008 and 2009, says Peter Kitzmiller, president of the Maryland Automobile Dealers Association.
Back then, he says, "No one was lending anybody money."
But now, Kitzmiller says, "Someone with reasonable credit can get a car loan without question."
Certificates of deposit Borrowers win when rates are low; savers lose.
And savers have been losing ground. The average rate on five-year CDs continues to slide, Bankrate reports, dropping last week to 1.54 percent.
Federal Reserve policymakers pledged last week to keep interest rates low for at least another two years.
That means rates won't be rising any time soon and could even fall, McBride says. So if you want to invest in a CD, he says, there's no reason to wait.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun