Despite an economy that appears to be strengthening, mortgage rates continued to hover below 3 percent this week. They have not been above 3 percent in the past two months.

According to the latest data released Thursday by Freddie Mac, the 30-year fixed-rate average fell to 2.96 percent with an average 0.7 point. (Points are fees paid to a lender equal to 1 percent of the loan amount. They are in addition to the interest rate.) It was 2.99 percent a week ago and 3.21 percent a year ago.

Freddie Mac, the federally chartered mortgage investor, aggregates rates from about 80 lenders nationwide to come up with weekly national averages. It uses rates for high-quality borrowers with high credit scores and large down payments. Because of the criteria, these rates are not available to every borrower.

The survey is based on home purchase mortgages, which means rates for refinances may be higher. The price adjustment for refinance transactions that took effect in December is adding to the cost. The adjustment, which applies to all Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac refinances, is 0.5 percent of the loan amount. That works out to $1,500 on a $300,000 loan.

The 15-year fixed-rate average slid to 2.23 percent with an average 0.6 point. It was 2.27 percent a week ago and 2.62 percent a year ago. The five-year adjustable rate average dropped to 2.55 percent with an average 0.2 point. It was 2.64 percent a week ago and 3.1 percent a year ago.

“The downward shift in rates, and the bond yields that influence them, has been perplexing for markets, as there was not an obvious reason for such a move to occur,” said Matthew Speakman, a Zillow economist. “The May jobs report came in under expectations, which, at least for now, weakened the likelihood that the Federal Reserve would tighten monetary policy anytime soon — something that would ultimately place more upward pressure on yields. But it’s unlikely that the jobs report alone is responsible for this recent downward move.

“At a time when most other key economic indicators are revving at a high gear, a modest jobs report should have merely prevented a sharp upward move in rates, rather than stoking a meaningful downturn. Indeed, it appears that underlying market dynamics, and other factors such an increased foreign demand for U.S. Treasurys, are likely also helping to keep downward pressure on yields. The fact that rate movements don’t appear to be tied to any specific data or developments makes it difficult to chart their path forward in the near term.”

Investors have been waiting for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to release the monthly consumer price index (CPI) for May. The CPI, released Thursday morning, showed prices jumped by 5 percent last month compared with a year ago. It was the largest increase in inflation since the Great Recession.

Although the report came out too late in the week to be factored into this week’s Freddie Mac survey, it is possible that Thursday’s CPI data will trigger sharply higher mortgage rates. With inflation rising, the Federal Reserve may feel compelled to reduce its bond purchases and raise short-term interest rates. All eyes will be on next week’s Fed meeting to see how central bank officials respond to the data.

“The Federal Reserve’s monetary policy committee meets June 15 and 16, and it might mention the need to develop a timetable to restrict the Fed’s easy-money ways,” Holden Lewis, a home and mortgage specialist at NerdWallet, wrote in an email. “That would push mortgage rates higher. It’s like when you’re at a party and the host ostentatiously yawns: You know the party isn’t yet over, but it will be soon. The Fed is stretching and getting ready to yawn. When it does, possibly next week, the low-rate party will gradually begin coming to a close.”, which puts out a weekly mortgage rate trend index, found more than half of the experts it surveyed expect rates to fall in the coming week.

“Fed bond buying continues,” said Jeff Lazerson, president of Mortgage Grader. “Employers are having a hard time getting folks to come back to work, which does not help economic growth.”

Meanwhile, mortgage applications waned for the third week in a row last week. According to the latest data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, the market composite index — a measure of total loan application volume — decreased 3.1 percent from a week earlier. The purchase index was essentially flat, ticking up 0.3 percent, while the refinance index dropped 5 percent. The refinance share of mortgage activity accounted for 60.4 percent of applications.

“With fewer homeowners able to take advantage of lower rates, the refinance share dipped to the lowest level since April,” Joel Kan, an MBA economist, said in a statement. “Purchase applications were up slightly last week, and the large annual decline was the result of Memorial Day 2021 being compared to a non-holiday week, as well as the big upswing in applications seen last May once pandemic-induced lockdowns started to lift.”

The MBA also released its mortgage credit availability index (MCAI) that showed credit availability increased in May. The MCAI grew 1.4 percent to 129.9 last month. An increase in the MCAI indicates lending standards are loosening, while a decrease signals they are tightening.

“Mortgage credit availability in May increased to its highest level since near the start of the pandemic, but still remained at 2014 levels,” Kan said in a statement. “The increase was driven by a 3 percent gain in the conventional segment of the market, with a rise in the supply of ARMs and cash-out refinances. … The jumbo index jumped 5 percent last month, but even with increases over the past two months, the index is still around half of where it was in February 2020.”

More Real Estate: