"What would it mean for mortgage companies if we added $400 billion or $500 billion of refis to loan originations in the next year?" a securities analyst asked.
He may have been feeling mellow from the lunch he had just finished. Nobody ventured an answer.
That kind of boom would rival the $1.01 trillion record set in 1993. Spread over 1995 and 1996, it would probably produce the second- and third- busiest years ever.
A few days later, I called the analyst, Gareth Plank of Rodman & Renshaw, San Francisco, and it turns out he was dead serious. "We believe there's a strong chance of a new boom," he said.
So far, people have been referring to the present jump in refinancings as a boomlet. But certain developments that are far from unlikely could stimulate a full-fledged boom, Mr. Plank believes.
In fact, a big boom may be just 75 basis points away, even according to more conservative observers. But 75 points could mean the blink of an eye or light years.
Charles Huang, a New York analyst who follows mortgage issues for Prudential Securities, is skeptical of anything more than a boomlet. "Assuming mortgage rates stay at around 8%, the upcoming refinancing boomlet is not expected to reach the proportions of the refinancing waves of 1992 and 1993. It would require a major rally of another 100 basis points to cause another such refinancing wave," he wrote in a recent report.
But that was before the bond market's newest rally, which pushed long- term interest rates down another 25 basis points or so. That's 25 down, 75 to go. Mortgage rates are following suit, with some lenders already beginning to quote fixed rates well below 8%.
Mr. Huang points out that other factors besides rates influence refinancings. The number of points paid by the borrower affects prepayments, along with how seasoned the loan is.
"Mortgagors who have opted to pay higher up-front fees in exchange for more favorable coupon rates presumably anticipate staying at the same residence for a relatively long period of time without refinancing," he says.
On the matter of seasoning, he says borrowers who have had extensive opportunity to refinance but have not done so are less interest sensitive than other borrowers.
Mr. Plank insists, however, that borrower behavior has undergone a major change. "Historically, you needed 200 basis points for a homeowner to refi. From 1991 to 1993, that notion was thrown out in its entirety. People refied for two points, or to split the commission with their broker. This has changed the nature of prepayment activity."
He adds that about $1 trillion of loans has been made from the end of the refi boom until now. "Some $400 billion are ARMs that, fully indexed, are at or above today's levels. And there are $600 billion of loans with coupons of 8.75% or higher," he says.
He believes there are a lot of fence sitters at the moment, who could be waiting to see if rates go any lower, and they could jump in at any time.
All of this adds up, he believes, to a pretty good chance that a new refinancing wave is just around the corner.