Mortgage brokers may not be as influential as many people think.

While a number of experts have suggested that brokers help originate about half of new mortgage loans, a new study shows that the leading lenders rely on brokers for only about 20% of production.

That surprising statistic emerged from a broad survey of the mortgage industry by SMR Research of Bud Lake, N.J. The firm queried the nation's 25 top mortgage lenders and another group of 25 large lenders.

2 Groups' Results Jibe

SMR said the two groups, which account for about 40% of mortgage originations nationwide, gave similar responses regarding brokers.

Mortgage brokerages are typically small, thinly capitalized operations that match consumers with lenders, then process applications and forward them to lenders for closing. In return, the brokers share some of the fees paid to lenders.

Surveyers Stand Firm

SMR's finding contrast with a recent study from the National Association of Mortgage Brokers reporting that brokers help with an estimated 45% of all new mortgages up from virtually zero in 1980. The trade group study was based on a nationwide survey of about 900 brokers.

"It's very difficult for me to accept a 45% or 50% broker level for total originations," said Stuart Feldstein, president of SMR.

But Thomas LaMalfa, an independent researcher who helped compile and write the study sponsored by the brokers' trade group, stood by his findings. He said lenders below the top 50 tend to rely on brokers more heavily than do mortgage industry leaders.

Separately, SMR's study offered dramatic evidence of the way low interest rates boosted mortgage lenders' bottom lines.

Lenders' Profit Burgeon

Eight major mortgage companies posted a 50% rise in combined profits for the first half of the year, according to SMR. That followed a 156% jump in earnings for all of last year at the companies, which are among the handful that publicly report earnings.

The group surveyed included two bank-owned units -- Fleet Mortgage Group and Norwest Mortgage Inc. -- four independent companies, and GMAC Mortgage Corp. and Source One Mortgage Services Corp., which are owned by nonbank parents.

Plaza Home Mortgage Corp., a recently formed holding company for a California thrift, may be the next home lending operation to go public.

An underwriting group led by Kidder, Peabody & Co. was trying this week to price an initial offering of 5 million shares in Plaza. In a Sept. 8 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the price range was put at $8 to $10 a share.

One source familiar with the deal expected the shares to have been sold by late Thursday.

Share Offerings No Cinch

While several mortgage companies have pulled off initial offerings this year, success has not been guaranteed. ARCS Mortgage Corp., a unit of Bank of New York Co., recently retreated from an effort to offer shares after investors proved unwilling to pay its price.

Plaza, with assets of $315 million, says it originated $2.8 billion of mortgages in the first half of 1992. It sells virtually all its loans in the secondary market.

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