On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, life will be peaches and cream, an old song says. And for executives gathered there this week at the Northeast regional conference of Mortgage Bankers associations, a few days of respite in a luxury resort may be as good as it gets.

They have been battered for more than a year not only by declining origination volume but also by price competition so fierce as to be fatal for many participants. Indeed, who's missing from the conference this year may be more telling than who's there. And it seems the industry has seldom had so many hot subjects to discuss.

As the residential section of the conference opens today, the major topics, both in the corridors and at the podium, are likely to be:

*The difficult state of the business today.

*Regulatory initiatives that will help or hinder the industry.

*How long the boom in adjustable-rate mortgages can last.

*The direction of interest rates.

*Fair lending.

*Alliances with realty agents and builders.

*How technology can improve the outlook.

Leland Brendsel, chairman of Freddie Mac, says he expects to deliver relatively encouraging words, considering the tough business environment in which mortgage bankers are operating. He will give details on what his agency, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., is doing to help mortgage bankers fight through it.

One speaker who is likely to be optimistic is Felix Beck, former chairman of Margaretten & Co. and now retired from Chemical Residential Mortgage Corp., which acquired Margaretten last year. Mr. Beck, a pioneer of the mortgage banking business, intends to give a historical perspective on the industry and relate the history to its problems today.

He promises to wind up with an examination of whether the time is again ripe for mortgage companies to go public - a rather startling topic as the industry continues to consolidate and share prices scrape bottom.

Joe K. Pickett, president of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, will be taking a far more political tack.

He is expected to rally the audience for a fight against dismantling the Federal Housing Administration and against any attempt to repeal the mortgage interest deduction. He will also offer sympathy on the industry's regulatory burdens and speculate whether any relief can be expected from the Republican Congress.

Paul Hancock, who heads housing and civil enforcement at the U.S. Department of Justice, will also have a say about regulation. He will discuss regulators' plans to amend fair-lending rules by adopting a disparate-treatment or "effects test" standard.

A change of pace will be offered by Bob Woodward, the Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter best known for his Watergate coverage, whose topic will be, "Where is Clinton Going?"

The Mortgage Bankers associations of New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania are sponsoring the regional conference in the Taj Mahal, one of the grander hotels and gambling palaces along the boardwalk.

And in keeping with this casino ambiance, celebrity entertainment is on the program. Richard Belzer, perhaps best known for his television role as a police detective on "Homicide: Life on the Streets," will do a standup comedy routine Thursday evening.

But will he be able to find anything funny to say about the state of the mortgage banking business?

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