Abandoning mortgage servicing wasn't easy for BankAtlantic Bancorp, a lender that had made the business a cornerstone for the last 30 years, the company's chairman said.
"We'd undertaken a yearlong study and found that mortgage servicing no longer represented the opportunity it once had," said Alan B. Levan, chairman and chief executive officer of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., thrift company.
"It's a different industry than it was," said Mr. Levan, whose institution opted this week to liquidate its $3 billion book of mortgage servicing rights as part of a companywide effort to cut costs.
With its announcement, BankAtlantic joins a small but growing number of lenders, including BankAmerica Corp. and First Coastal Corp. of Westbrook, Maine, that have taken big charges against their servicing portfolios or put their entire books up for sale.
Industry experts say other lenders are likely to follow.
Mortgage servicing requires a "flexibility" that many lenders have not displayed by sufficiently hedging their portfolios and keeping enough originations flowing in, said Joseph Bryant, president of Roslyn National Mortgage Corp.
Mr. Bryant, a veteran mortgage banker, said his New York company has every intention of continuing in the mortgage business, but he predicts others will not stay the course.
Mr. Levan said that for the past three decades BankAtlantic, like many thrifts and commercial banks, had profited from servicing mortgages-loans their own salespeople originated and those they bought from other lenders.
The company extended mortgages at rates that offset and even exceeded the runoff from refinancings and early repayments.
But the business, which had supplied fees for processing payments and turned up cross-selling opportunities, was found this year to "no longer meet our standards," Mr. Levan said.
Sustained low interest rates kept prepayments unusually high for an unusually long period, eating into the value of servicing, Mr. Levan said. "We had not been profitable for the past couple of quarters."
In the most recently reported period, the quarter ended Sept. 30, BankAtlantic took a $15 million writedown for its mortgage servicing book, a move that it hoped would save the business.
But the decision was made this month to get out of servicing altogether, and BankAtlantic is now seeking a buyer for all its mortgage servicing rights.
Mr. Levan declined to discuss a price but experts estimate the $3 billion portfolio to be worth $30 to $40 million-probably closer to $30 million, because BankAtlantic is an eager seller.
BankAtlantic will continue offering mortgage products to its customers, but has not yet decided whether it will service these loans or sell them as they are made, Mr. Levan said.
The company, which is letting go of 185 people as part of the restructuring, will focus on areas such as small-business lending and consumer lending, and will shift to more transaction-based accounts, Mr. Levan said. "The expected result will be a simpler and enhanced product mix, improved customer service, and long-term profitability."