Over the past two years, regulatory changes have prompted big banks such as Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) to sell off hunks of mortgage servicing rights to new companies like Nationstar (NYSE: NSM) Ocwen Financial (NYSE:OCN). Bank of America, in particular, has been especially busy getting rid of these once-lucrative financial products, which are considered separate from the mortgages themselves.
Recently, however, Nationstar and Ocwen lost out to none other than JPMorgan in the bidding process to procure $70 billion of MetLife's (NYSE:MET) servicing rights. What's behind this change of prospective at the Bank of Dimon?
A sea change in attitude
Like B of A, JPMorgan had off-loaded about half the value of its servicing portfolio last year in an effort to get out from under new Basel III rules that limit MSRs to 10% of Tier 1 capital -- as well as new servicing rules agreed upon in regards to the $25 billion foreclosure settlement with the government earlier this year.
Usually, it's a match made in heaven when banks sell MSRs to servicers like Ocwen and Nationstar, since the former reduce their bureaucratic baggage and get a nice payday, while the latter get a turnkey, profitable business without the regulatory headaches with which banks have to deal. In MetLife's case, the giant life insurer has been desperately trying to sell off all aspects of its banking businesses in an effort to escape the same rules and regulations as banks.
Then, suddenly, JPMorgan jumps in and elbows the servicers out of the game, adding MetLife's MSRs to its current $1.1 trillion servicing unit.
It's all about housing
What's the reason for this new direction? In a word: housing. Jamie Dimon has gone on record more than once lately trumpeting his belief that housing is once again a going concern. All indicators support his theory, and the bank's jump in mortgage originations of 29% year over year shows that the budding housing recovery has legs.
Wells Fargo noticed this phenomenon as well. The mortgage-writing market leader saw its originations rise by 56% since the year-ago quarter, and the head of the bank's mortgage lending department also commented on the fact that housing is reviving. Wells, like JPMorgan, has also showed a predisposition to expanding its $1.9 trillion MSR unit, after reducing its portfolio by 13% in 2011.
This change in attitude is significant, both as an indicator of the housing recovery and for banks' profit levels, which are bound to go up as mortgage activity picks up the pace. While JPMorgan's involvement in the MetLife bidding was bad news for Nationstar and Ocwen, things should be looking up for those companies as well, as a true housing recovery would mean plenty of MSRs for all -- hopefully, sooner rather than later.