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Three scary things I noticed at the mortgage bankers convention

Last week, I joined a few thousand of my closest friends at the Mortgage Banker’s Association‘s Annual Convention in Atlanta. For the 97th year, this organization put on what for many is the largest party of the mortgage year. While it didn’t hold candle to the annual conventions of the past, last week I pointed out a few things I found encouraging about the show, things that made me smile through the pain of being on my feet for 16 hours a day and rushing from place to place in a mad dash to see all of the people I had hoped to connect with at the show. Admittedly, it was a rather short list. There may have been other encouraging things that were going on that I missed, so you shouldn’t take my list of the good things from MBA Annual as the last word on the issue. Nor, should you take this list of scary things I saw as an unabridged account of the things that should worry anyone who cares about the future of this business. The first scary thing I noticed about the conference was that, despite the fact that we all thought it was a great show, for an annual convention it was still very small compared to those we got used to seeing earlier this decade. If this show had been solely a tech show or a servicing show or a fraud show, it would’ve been really great. But an annual convention? Of course we were thrilled to see it step up from last year’s show, and that’s the scary part to me. Are we really buying in to all the “this is the new normal” talk we’ve been hearing? Are our expectations now so low that an annual convention that looks like a tech show gets us excited? It appears that we have been so beat down in our industry by the downturn that we get very excited at the smallest indication of a comeback. That should scare us a bit, I think. The second scary thing I noticed was that close to half of the folks I saw at the show were not wearing their official MBA convention badges. I think they weren’t wearing them because they didn’t pay for one. Early estimates from one MBA staffer I spoke to put the total number of show registrants at about 3,000. I’ve found that MBA estimates a bit high, as many conference planners do. I’m guessing there were nearly that many executives working the show from outside the velvet ropes. Anyone who walked across to the Omni would have seen what amounted to another convention going on over there. This tells me that a lot of people saw the value in coming together, but not in what the MBA had to offer in its official parties and sessions. That’s scary because it indicates that the industry’s largest trade group may be out of touch with the real needs of its membership. Either that or it’s just charging too much. I’m leaning toward the former because I found enough value to buy a badge and I saw a lot of people I respect wearing one, too. But we could be wrong. Finally, the third thing that scared me about the most recent MBA Annual Convention was that despite the fact that plenty of people turned out and the session rooms were packed for most of the show, I didn’t really find many people saying anything other than “we don’t know yet.” How will Dodd-Frank ultimately affect us? What’s the real impact of Foreclosure-Gate? When will the shadow inventory hit the market? When will interest rates start to rise and how high will they go? No one I ran across was going out on any limbs during this show. The same was pretty much true on the news site. Sure there were a number of product releases, some that were interesting. But very light otherwise. If I had to list the three news stories that got the most attention from the people I visited with at the show, it would have to be: 1. Lenders hate buybacks. I didn’t need to travel all the way to Atlanta to find this out. This is no surprise. What people do want to know is how to avoid buybacks, but I didn’t hear anyone who knew how to do that, especially for loans that were originated 3–4 years ago. 2. Nobody understands Dodd-Frank. No one can foretell where the bureaucrats will take it. So while the sessions were packed with lenders, everyone came out looking just as confused as when they went in. 3. Total originations for 2011 will be below one trillion, down from nearly three-and-a-half trillion at the height of the refi boom, according to the MBA. Maybe MBA Annual isn’t the place to announce big news—though it seems like it was in the past. Maybe we shouldn’t be worried that no one on the inside of the industry seems to be talking very loudly about the direction the industry should be taking now. Maybe we should just do what many of the folks I saw at MBA Annual seem to be doing, wait and watch. Maybe. But I find that approach a bit unsettling, scary even. It scares me that I can’t point to a mortgage executive who is standing up and raising hell. That’s the kind of leadership our industry needs now. Rick Grant is veteran journalist covering mortgage technology and the financial industry. Follow him on Twitter: @NYRickGrant

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