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Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Un-re-dis-inter-mediation Blues

by Tanta on 1/03/2008 08:06:00 AM

We all knew that technology would solve our productivity problems, and National Mortgage News has the proof:

One question some of you might be asking is this: if subprime volumes have screeched to a halt, what are all those traders on Wall Street doing? Good question. We're told that come January there will be a wholesale shakeup at several firms. Sources tell us that Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch all are conducting reviews (or soon will) of their entire mortgage operations. As for where the most drastic changes might occur, Merrill Lynch might be a good bet. An account executive there told us recently about conditions at Merrill's First Franklin Financial Corp. He said many offices are not funding loans while awaiting training for Fannie Mae products. "So far, there's been no training," he told us. The AE, requesting his name not be used, painted a bleak picture, saying business is so slow that employees pass the day playing Scrabble and PlayStation on the conference room projector screen. He said FFFC AEs and executives keep asking Merrill why they can't just originate loans and put them on the balance sheet of Merrill's FDIC-insured bank. "We're not getting any answers," he said.
Aside from the idea of loan officers having sufficient spelling skills to play Scrabble, which is new to me, here we have the two same old dumb ideas that emerge in any mortgage downturn, with a delicious twist that it's Wall Street getting it instead of Main Street.

First, there's the old "let's retrain a bunch of subprime loan officers to be prime GSE loan officers." You civilians might think this should be fairly easy, but the fact is that training a lot of these people to be prime loan officers basically means training them to be loan officers. If they had any basic depth of understanding of the business they're in, they could move to prime origination by just reading that other rate sheet. The reality is that they've been doing no-doc no-down no-sweat stuff for so long--some of them have never done anything but--that they're sitting around with the PlayStation waiting for someone to tell them how a 30-year fixed rate loan with a down payment and verified income actually works. Which is to say, their bosses are sitting around in the busier conference rooms trying to figure out if it's possibly worth the time and money to turn these people into mortgage experts instead of corner-cutting order-takers.

Item the second causes a deep belly laugh in anyone who ever worked for a depository in a mortgage downcycle: "Why can't we just put the loans on the balance sheet?" I know it makes me a bad person, but the thought of Merrill getting this one from its mortgage people is floating me heavenward on a warm tide of schadenfreude. I suspect that it may well be tickling the folks at National City, insofar as they have anything to laugh about these days. In case you don't remember, Merrill bought First Franklin from National City just over a year ago--but apparently nobody explained to the First Franklin folks that they no longer had a parent with a big fat hold-to-maturity portfolio with which loan originators can be subsidized in a low-volume period.

That is--or once was--an old strategy for depositories: when you can't sell your loans, hunker down, stuff 'em on the books and wait for the tide to turn. We are seeing depository after depository shutting down its wholesale and correspondent lending divisions, meaning it will, as always, only allocate those portfolio dollars to keeping an expensive but much safer retail operation alive. If you're a mortgage broker right now, you are staring in the face of hunger.

But Merrill really really wanted to be a retail originator in its own right. Welcome to the other side of the mortgage world, Mother Merrill, and try turning in some tiles. Maybe you'll get a vowel.