U.S. Banks In Buyer's War For Loan Officers

Feb 3, 2014

Refinancing has plummeted, so with peak home purchasing season on the horizon, banks are trying to beef up their new home loan business.

Some banks that have laid off workers in their re-fi call centers are now engaged in bidding wars for experienced home loan officers.

Cardiff Garcia of the Financial Times joins Here & Now’s Robin Young with details.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

And the number of people refinancing their homes has plummeted. That means a cut in fees for banks. So with home purchasing season kicking into gear as early as next month, banks are trying to beef up their new home loan business, some even engaging in bidding wars for experienced home loan officers. What does this mean for homeowners and people looking to buy?

Cardiff Garcia is a reporter for the Financial Times. And, Cardiff, it's probably simple, maybe having to do with interest rates. But why has refinancing fallen off so much?

CARDIFF GARCIA: Yeah, this was predictable. And there's a couple of different reasons. The first, as you said, is that interest rates are higher now. They've been climbing since roughly the middle of last year. The other one is that refinancing also is heavily concentrated in very safe borrowers, and that limited pool of borrowers has always kind of remained, you know, constrained. It hasn't really been widened too much. So it was inevitable that at some point, the refi boom would end. And we started seeing it end roughly in the beginning and the middle of last year. That's continued. This was a big, big source of revenues for the banks and, obviously, they're a little bit worried about it. So they're going to, you know, change up their mix.

YOUNG: Well, they'd laid off people in their refinancing call centers. But as we just said, they're boosting the people in the home - new home loan divisions. What does that mean?

GARCIA: True. It's simple really. There's, you know, essentially two kinds of mortgages, and this is a simplistic way of describing it. But there's refinancing and then there's the mortgages you get, obviously, to actually buy a house. They're now shifting their mix of employees towards the latter. And the reason they want to have loan officers that are sort of experienced and that know people who are safe borrowers is because that kind of thing still matters a lot to the banks, especially in the aftermath of the crisis.

YOUNG: Yeah. Well, what does it mean, broaden out? What does this shift in banking and this - it sounds like a scramble on the part of the banks to get these great loan officers and try to make loans. What does that mean for people selling their homes? And what does that mean for people looking to buy?

GARCIA: So you almost have to put this into the context of the housing market overall, right? So housing prices have rebounded, OK? But housing activity hasn't really strengthened to the point where you like it to. So with housing prices going up, you have fewer underwater homeowners. You have more people comfortable selling their homes, and you also have what's hoped to be a pick up in household formation. As people get more and more jobs, they move out of their parents' homes or, you know, out of the homes of their relatives, and then they buy a house. That drives more economic activity and it becomes a kind of self-sustaining cycle.

But in terms of the banks role here, it's clear that in the last couple of years, they've been increasingly accepting riskier borrowers for things like credit cards for auto loans but only very gradually have they been accepting riskier borrowers for homes. And so, the idea is that if the housing market continues to pick up - and that's not clear, by the way - but if it does, then they'll be a little bit more comfortable extending these loans to somewhat riskier borrowers.

YOUNG: Uh-oh. Because, you know, you hear riskier borrowers, you're thinking of the housing bubble and all those bad mortgages that were given out.

GARCIA: Yeah. And that's - I mean, that's a great question and that's obviously a relevant topic here. But I think it's important to keep in mind that - I mean, things were just dramatically worse before 2006, 2007, when the housing market started its downturn and - which ended up leading to this big collapse in the financial markets. I mean, we're starting to just barely inch from a situation where the banks were only accepting the safest of the safest borrowers.

So if they start, you know, gradually accepting riskier borrowers, to be honest, that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's sort of would represent more and increasing confidence in the American economy. And I think, in some sense, that's also justified.

YOUNG: Cardiff Garcia of the Financial Times, it sounds like what you're saying is if you are looking in the market to buy a home, you might meet a newly hired, really eager, top loan officer to help you do that this spring. Cardiff, thanks so much.

GARCIA: Thanks, Robin.

YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.