A “shake-up” is coming among mortgage lenders

A “shake-up” is coming among mortgage lenders

A sign hangs from a branch of Banco Santander in London, Britain, Wednesday, February 3, 2010.

Simon Dawson | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Banks and other mortgage lenders have been hit by a drop in demand for loans this year as a result of the Federal Reserve raising interest rates.

Some firms will be forced out of the industry entirely as refinancing business dries up, according to Tim Weness, chief executive of Santander’s US division.

He would have known: Santander – a relatively small player in the mortgage market – announced its decision to drop the product in February.

“We were first here, and others are now doing the same math and seeing what’s happening with mortgage volumes,” Weness said in a recent interview. “For many, especially smaller institutions, most of the mortgage volume is refinance activity, which is drying up and likely to lead to a shakeout.”

The mortgage business boomed in the first two years of the pandemic, driven by low financing costs and a preference for suburban homes with home offices. The industry reported a record $4.4 trillion in loan volume last year, including $2.7 trillion in refinancing, according to mortgage data and analytics provider Black Knight.

But rising interest rates and home prices that have yet to come down have made housing unaffordable for many Americans and closed the refinancing channel for lenders. Interest-based refinancing has sunk 90% through April from last year, according to Black Knight.

‘as much as’

Santander’s move, part of a strategic move to focus on higher-return businesses such as its auto lending franchise, now appears prescient. Santander, which has about $154 billion in assets and 15,000 American employees, is part of a Madrid-based global bank with operations in Europe and Latin America.

More recently, the largest home loan banks, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, have cut mortgage staffing levels to accommodate lower volumes. Smaller non-bank providers are reportedly scrambling to sell loan servicing rights or even considering mergers or partnerships with competitors.

“The sector was as good as it gets” last year, said Owens, a three-decade banking veteran who has worked at firms including Union Bank, Wells Fargo and Countrywide.

“We looked at the returns over the cycle, saw where we were headed with the higher interest rates and made the decision to exit,” he said.

Others to follow?

While banks dominated the U.S. mortgage business, they have played a diminished role since the 2008 financial crisis, in which home loans played a central role. Instead, non-bank players like Rocket Mortgage have gobbled up market share, less burdened by regulations that hit big banks harder.

Of the top ten mortgage lenders by loan volume, only three are traditional banks: Wells Fargo, JPMorgan and Bank of America.

The rest are newer players with names like United Wholesale Mortgage and Freedom Mortgage. Many of the firms took advantage of the pandemic boom to go public. Their shares are already deep underwater, which could trigger consolidation in the sector.

Complicating matters, banks need to invest money in technology platforms to streamline the document-intensive application process to keep up with customer expectations.

Firms including JPMorgan have said increasingly tough capital rules will force it to clean mortgages off its balance sheet, making the business less attractive.

The dynamic may lead some banks to decide to offer mortgages through partners, which Santander is doing now; it lists Rocket Mortgage on its website.

“Banks are ultimately going to have to ask themselves if they consider this a core product they’re offering,” Weness said.

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