Las Vegas will be 1996's mortgage origination hot spot, according to a study of the 60 most-populated housing and mortgage markets by the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.

In fact, the Sun Belt - with Texas, Georgia, Arizona, and Florida as well as Nevada - dominates the list of promising prospects.

High employment growth is the weightiest factor when judging prospering regions, says Brian Carey, an assistant economist with the trade group.

The addition of theme parks like the MGM Grand and an international marketing campaign have helped create thousands of new jobs in the Las Vegas area.

"The gambling industry is just going nuts out there," said Steve Cochrane, senior economist at Regional Financial Associates, West Chester, Pa.

"Las Vegas has transferred itself from a gambling center for adults to a family entertainment center."

Austin, Tex., ranked No. 2 on the Regional Mortgage Market Index, is benefiting from high-technology growth, less-stringent environmental regulations, and good climate, Mr. Cochrane said.

Both areas are also benefiting from companies' migrations from California in response to poor business conditions.

The trade group used weighted data from the first half of 1995, including population, nonfarm payroll employment, personal income, existing home sales and prices, and housing affordability, to determine good future mortgage markets.

Results are weighed against historical indexes, and do not reflect the size of the markets ranked.

The trade group is hoping to tap into an untrod market with the new forecasting methodology. "We're filling a need here," Mr. Carey said. He, Shantanu Deshpande, and chief economist David Lereah developed the index, which will be available quarterly by subscription.

In addition, the trade group's MBA Economics division will be complementing the index with individual models that estimate mortgage origination volume and employ a measure of business risk.

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