Banks shed jobs as housing market improves

Six years after the mortgage meltdown, delinquencies and foreclosures are way down. Millions of borrowers have cut their housing costs by refinancing at the lowest interest rates ever recorded.

That’s great for borrowers and bank balance sheets, but bad for bank workers – who are now being laid off by the thousands. Their services are no longer needed to handle troubled borrowers or the boom in refinancing sparked by historically low interest rates.

The latest announcement came this week from No. 1 mortgage lender Wells Fargo &Co., which said it would eliminate the jobs of 2,300 workers who had processed refinance applications – about 3 percent of the 70,000 employees in its consumer lending group. The giant San Francisco bank said it would try to find jobs elsewhere in its operations for the affected workers.

JPMorgan Chase &Co., the second-largest mortgage originator, said this month that it would eliminate 3,000 mortgage jobs as the business slows down – part of a previously announced plan to downsize the mortgage staff by 15,000 by the end of next year.

“We are responding to our customers’ changing needs,” the bank said in a statement.

The slowdown in mortgage originations coincides with rising interest rates, which have increased by more than a percentage point from recent lows.

The typical rate that lenders were offering for a 30-year fixed mortgage averaged 4.58 percent early this week, compared with 4.4 percent a week earlier and 3.35 percent in early May, according to Freddie Mac’s widely watched survey.

The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates that refinance mortgages will drop 22 percent this year to $967 billion, from $1.25 trillion last year, with an additional 60 percent decline to $388 billion next year.

The Chase layoff ax landed its biggest blow in San Diego, where the New York bank closed a call center that had employed 730 people. The bank said it would work with affected employees to find openings at Chase or with other companies.

In emails to its staff and to news media, Wells Fargo said strong home lending the past few years was driven by refinance loans, which made up more than 70 percent of new mortgages in the first half of 2013.

“Industry trends suggest that refinance activity has recently fallen to around 50 percent of application volume and (is) projected to fall further in the coming months,” the bank said in a statement.

Bank of America Corp. last month reported a decline of more than 20,000 employees and contract workers in the past year at its Legacy Asset Servicing division, which deals with delinquent mortgages inherited in its 2008 acquisition of Countrywide Financial Corp., the Calabasas, Calif., specialist in subprime and other risky loans.

The number of these borrowers who have missed at least two payments has declined to fewer than 500,000 from a peak of 1.4 million and is expected to fall to 375,000 by the end of the year.

U.S. Bancorp, the fifth-largest residential lender, said it does not expect to lose mortgage jobs overall despite an unexpected plunge in second-quarter home-lending revenue.

“We are seeing a shift in the types of mortgage jobs needed,” said Teri Charest, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis bank. “For example, as the housing market improves, we need fewer default resolution specialists, but we’re increasing on the mortgage counseling, technology and production side of the business.”

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