As refinancing volume tapers off, the mortgage industry is experiencing a softer landing than when the last boom ended.
Countrywide Credit Industries, the nation's largest mortgage bank, laid off about 1,000 employees in February. About half were full-time workers, while the rest were temporaries, a spokesman said.
But that same month, the Calabasas, Calif., company hired 250 workers, so the net reduction of its full-time force was only about 230 workers, or 2%.
That's a sharp contrast to 1994, when a much smaller Countrywide reduced its staff by 1,500, or 30%. The production staff was cut 14.2% in April 1994 alone.
The latest layoffs were mostly in production, but they reduced that part of the work force by only 5%.
Mortgage industry cutbacks have been less severe so far because interest rates have reached a plateau rather than increasing sharply, as they did five years ago.
In 1994 the average 30-year fixed mortgage rate jumped to 8.04% on April 1, from 7.13% on Dec. 31, 1993. This year the figure has hovered around 7%, peaking at 7.11% in mid-March. Mortgage rates fell 3 basis points last week, to 6.98%.
The leveling off has clearly curbed demand for refinancings, which surged last year amid a series of rate drops.
"The refi boom died of old age," said Keith T. Gumbinger, vice president at HSH Associates, Butler, N.J. "A lot of the demand for 7% mortgages has been sated."
Countrywide's large network of retail offices gives it a bird's-eye view of application volume-a leading indicator of manpower needs-said chairman and chief executive Angelo R. Mozilo in a recent interview.
"Every 15 minutes we know the flow of applications," he said. "We know when we have to gear up and gear down."
But another major lender said that now is not the time to reduce staff. "We do not have physical evidence that the refinance boom is over, relative to a year like 1997," said A. William Schenck, chief executive officer of Fleet Mortgage Group, Columbia, S.C. "We're continuing to add people here as volume goes up."
The mortgage unit of Fleet Financial Group expects its volume to increase 11% this year, to $40 billion, Mr. Schenck said.
Refinance volume is "certainly not at the peak it was in 1998, but it's still a strong refinance time," he said. There are still many borrowers with mortgages of 7.5% to 8% for whom refinancing is an attractive option, Mr. Schenck observed.