WASHINGTON — Employment in the nonbank mortgage lender and brokerage sector unexpectedly rose in February after several months of layoffs.
Nondepository origination firms employed 339,800 workers in February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. That's an increase of 2,500 jobs from January, when the nonbank sector employed 337,300, according to revised BLS estimates. A year ago, the nonbank mortgage sector employed 331,600 full-time workers.
The spurt in hiring comes as the mortgage market has seen a major drop in refinance activity and slow growth in mortgage purchase activity.
The refinancing share of the mortgage market has dropped from 50% in 2016 to 35% in 2017. And with rising interest rates, it's heading down to 25% this year, according Mortgage Bankers Association chief economist Mike Fratantoni.
And this winter seemed colder for lenders with the drop in origination volume and profit margins. In the middle of last year, origination margins were about 40 basis points, compared to a 10-year average of around 60 basis points.
But in the fourth quarter of 2017, margins were down to 9 basis points. And margins have not improved in the first quarter of 2018, which is crimping profitability.
"Talking to a lot of lenders, this has been a really challenging fall and winter season," Fratantoni said in an interview Thursday.
But the spring selling season may provide some relief.
"We are looking for 6% growth in purchase mortgage volume this year. For those lenders that are purchase focused — that is a positive," the MBA economist said.
So far, "the spring looks promising," he added, with purchase applications running 5% ahead of last year in MBA's weekly surveys.
However, National Association of Home Builders chief economist Robert Dietz expects new home sales will increase very modestly this year to 638,000 units, up from 615,000 in 2017.
"Supply side constraints on construction continue to limit inventory and sales," he said, such as increasing lumber costs and the availability and costs of labor," Dietz said. "I expect residential construction industry labor force to grow by approximately 100,000 in 2018, which is less than what we need."
In March, employment in the construction trades fell by 15,000, "following a large gain in February of 65,000," BLS acting commissioner William Wiatrowski said in a statement Friday.
The industry-specific BLS estimates have a one-month lag to total employment figures. U.S. employers added 103,000 workers to the payrolls in March, compared to a downwardly revised 176,000 in February, the BLS also said Friday. The BLS originally reported 239,000 new hires in February. Overall, the U.S. unemployment rate remained unchanged at 4.1%.