Mortgage loan originations jumped only slightly last year for the nation's thrift institutions as consumers continued to focus on fixed-rate products.

The country's top 25 thrifts did better than most in the industry, jumping 13.8% above 1992 levels. The thrift industry as a whole, however, barely budged, rising only 3.58% above 1992 figures for all Savings Association Insurance Fund-insured thrifts.

Interest rates were the culprit last year, according to bankers, who said that the low rates cut into their traditional business of selling adjustable-rate mortgages.

"We didn't want to go head-to-head with the banks selling fixed-rate loans," said Sam Lyons, senior vice president in charge of mortgage banking at Great Western Bank.

Great Western's loan originations were flat last year and Mr. Lyons said the thrift experienced a double whammy in 1993 because it depends more on loans for home purchases rather than refis, and on those with adjustable rates.

Fears Over Rates

"It was primarily a mortgage bankers' year," said Mr. Lyons.

With fixed-rates as low as 7% last year, most borrowers opted for fixed mortgages that thrifts have been wary to lock into because of the fear that interest rates might rise. Because of this, thrifts had all but ceded most of the market to mortgage banks and brokers.

"Mortgage brokers have cropped up everywhere,c said John P. Ray, senior vice president and chief mortgage lending officer for Standard Federal Bank in Troy, Mich.

"They've expanded and given us lots of competition."

Standard Federal closed more than $4 billion of loans in 1993. Mr. Ray attributes almost 70% of that figure to the refinancing frenzy of last year.

"Our loan officers were stuck to their desks in 1993 because of the refi boom, but they're out on the streets now," Mr. Ray said.

Competing in a Leaner Market

Some thrifts are positioning themselves to compete in the new leaner market.

Guaranty Federal Bank in Dallas saw its loan production skyrocket nearly 40% in 1993. The thrift made more than $5 billion of mortgage loans last year, but isn't resting on its laurels.

Guaranty is expanding its existing retail and wholesale mortgage loan operations, according to Thomas Yeanne, a senior vice president at Guaranty.

Suncoast Savings and Loan Association reapportioned its sales efforts last year, concentrating in the Florida and Northern California where the thrift has a heavy presence.

Suncoast pulled out of Southern California while opening offices in Texas, Charlotte, N.C., and Seattle.

"Our fear was California," said Greg Amstrong, president of the thrift's mortgage subsidiary, SCS Mortgage. "We needed to expand nationally just in case the economy went sour in the state."

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