Is the party over for mortgage lenders?

April 12, 2013

JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, the nation’s largest banks, reported Friday a decline in applications for home loans, a sign that the strength of the housing recovery may be waning.

The report was the latest worrisome indicator for the economy. The government on Friday said retail sales declined 0.4 percent last month, which was worse than expected and the biggest decline in nine months. The government also reported this month a dramatic slowdown in job creation.

Housing has been seen as one of the recovery’s bright spots. But on Friday, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo reported that the volume of their mortgage applications fell, even though the spring selling season is gearing up.

At JPMorgan, applications fell 8 percent in the first quarter, compared with the previous quarter, though they were up 1 percent from a year earlier. Overall revenue from its mortgage division fell 31 percent.

Wells Fargo’s mortgage applications fell 8 percent, compared with the last three months of 2012, and were down 25 percent from the first quarter of 2012.

Charles Calomiris, a professor at Columbia Business School, talks about bank regulations and capital requirements. Calomiris also discusses the outlook for bank earnings and Federal Reserve monetary policy. (Source: Bloomberg) (Bloomberg)

The figures, however, aren’t a perfect measure for the health of the housing market. The two banks saw mortgage revenues fall partly because competition increased, squeezing profit margins. In addition, the record low cost of making loans — spurred by stimulus efforts by the Federal Reserve — have started to rise again.

Ken Usdin, an analyst with investment banking firm Jefferies, said the pressure on mortgage revenue is largely independent from the underlying improvement in the housing market, which is being driven by low inventory and the stabilization in prices.

Refinancings also have begun to peter out as mortgage rates have crept up from record lows.

The earnings reports from the two banks offered potential good news for consumers. If demand for home loans continues to be soft, banks might lower rates to draw in more business, some analysts said. Banks have said they were resisting lowering mortgage rates for fear that they would be overwhelmed with customers.

“You have more lenders saying, ‘I no longer have to ration my capacity. I can handle the business that comes in the door,’ ” said Jay Brinkmann, chief economist at the Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group.

But mortgage application numbers — an indication of future demand for home loans — were not encouraging to economists, who had been hoping that the real estate market would continue its strong recovery.

“Our guess is that mortgage origination levels and revenues will continue to come down,” Tim Sloan, chief financial officer for Wells Fargo, said in an interview with Reuters.

Profits at the mortgage divisions at JPMorgan and Wells Fargo had been soaring after the Fed began its third round of stimulus in the fall. The central bank has been buying $85 billion worth of government bonds, as well as the mortgage bonds that finance home loans. That greatly lowered the cost of issuing mortgages.

But bond prices have come down and competition among lenders has gone up, lowering the amount of money that mortgage bankers can make on loans.

Overall, both banks reported an increase in profits from a year ago. JPMorgan’s net income reached $6.53 billion, compared with $4.92 billion last year. Wells Fargo reported a 23 percent rise in profit in the first quarter, more than expected.

But Wall Street appeared worried about what the future holds for both banking giants. Shares of JPMorgan fell 0.6 percent, to close at $49.01, recovering some of its earlier losses during the regular trading session. Wells Fargo fell 0.8 percent, to close at $37.21.

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