The refinancing boom will never end. The unusual stretch of perfect weather in the Bay Area will last forever. And the annual western secondary mortgage market conference is a version of heaven.
That was the heady mood in San Francisco last week as the nation's mortgage bankers, 1,500 strong, gathered to listen to speeches and make deals. The attendance was the biggest in years, said Kathy Wedeking of the California League of Savings Institutions, which sponsored the conference. She said the long list of attendees reflected the mortgage boom of the past few years.
The conference, while decidedly upbeat, also addressed some of the thornier issues facing the industry. Two of the big ones seemed to be on everybody's mind: discrimination in mortgage lending and technology's increasing role in the industry. There was also a lot of chat about life after the refinancing boom. but not much in the way of concrete plans.
In his opening address to the conference. James Johnson, chief executive of the Federal National Mortgage Association, referred to "a pattern of economic and racial segregation" in the mortgage industry.
"Every single survey and every single study reflects the fact that a lot of Americans are not getting housing credit. The industry certainly needs to put its heads together to solve this problem," he said.
Later in the speech, Mr. Johnson announced changes to Fannie Mae's affordable housing programs, which he said were designed to make mortgages available to minorities and low-income people.
Since Fannie Mae and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. make up most of the secondary mortgage market, their loan underwriting guidelines set the standard for the industry. It is up to them, said several attendees, to make it possible for lenders to make mortgages to low-income borrowers.
"The agencies have got to loosen their guidelines so we can lend to more people," said one lender.
On other subjects, the mood at the conference remained stubbornly positive. The California League of Savings Institutions released a survey that it said showed the seeds of a resurgence in that state's housing markets.
Modeled after Fannie Mae's annual national housing survey, the survey showed that many Californians think it is a good time to buy a house and that even more actually want to.
The survey's results were consistent across all age, ethnic, and economic groups, and officials of the league said the report made them hopeful that the state's economy would rebound. They said pent-up demand after the long recession would boost new home purchases and take up the slack in the industry when interest rates go up and refinancings ease.
What was not clear from the survey was how, in the midst of California's severe economic slump, residents would be able to afford new homes.
As usual, the real action was more in the hallways and nearby restaurants than in the conference rooms.
"I schedule 10 meetings a day when I come to these things," said Judy Berry, chief financial officer of American Residential Holding Corp., La Jolla, Calif.
The wood-paneled lobby of the Westin St. Francis was often more crowded than any of the conference sessions. In groups of two and three, somberly dressed mortgage professionals huddled over calculators, spreadsheets, and documents as they bought and sold mortgages -- or at least talked about them.
Countrywide Credit Industries was at the conference in full force, showing off its highly developed technological prowess.
Jeffrey Butler, chief information officer at Countrywide, predicted that within the next several years, technology would lead to standardization of the process of selling a loan into the secondary market and eventually would do the same for mortgage applications.
But some remain skeptical. "It's nice to think about those things, and technology certainly helps," said Thomas Hamilton, senior vice president with the California league. "But you still have to sign all that paper."