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Fannie, Freddie to Steal Banks' Crutches?


Propping up warehouse lending could harm financials.


With mortgage rates at historic lows, housing prices plummeting, and Washington throwing billions at housing-market recovery efforts, why is it still so damn hard to get a loan?

And while the easy answer is that banks are flat-out broke, the real answer may lie in an esoteric corner of mortgage finance which has all but disappeared: warehouse lending.

In the heyday of the housing boom, small mortgage companies were able to compete with huge financial institutions by tapping so-called warehouse lines of credit. Using cash from their warehouse lender to fund loans at the closing table, as big banks do, these smaller mortgage shops could often provide better service than their bigger competitors, though at the same low rates.

Warehouse lenders, often big banks themselves -- remember Washington Mutual and Countrywide (Bank of America (BAC))? -- held onto loans until they were sold in the secondary market. Turnaround time could be anywhere from a few days to a few months for larger, more complex transactions.

The benefits to being able to finance one's own loans rather than just acting as a broker were numerous. Having a warehouse line gave mortgage bankers better control over the closing process, enabling them to beat out big banks in terms of response time and customer service.

By aggregating loans on a warehouse line, bankers could bundle them together and sell packages at a premium, rather than selling them off one by one. And since they could sell loans to any bank on the street, most such originators offered loan programs just as varied as those of even the biggest institutional lenders.

At the height of the boom, it was estimated that almost half of the over $3 trillion in annual loan production was first funded on a warehouse line.

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