Dismal U.S. Employment Outlook Dampens Mood of Mortgage Bankers

SAN DIEGO — Despite the likely passage of a federal stimulus package currently valued at about $789.5 billion and signs that the credit markets are starting to thaw in Corporate America, commercial and multifamily mortgage bankers gathered here for a national convention are in a “show-me” state of mind when it comes to talk of a U.S. economic recovery.

The economy has lost 3.6 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, and 598,000 jobs in January alone, according to the Department of Labor. “Until that job-loss picture reaches bottom and starts to come back, it’s going to be tough on the real estate fundamentals — the rents, the occupancies, the fundamental metrics that drive real estate,” says David Twardock, president of Prudential Mortgage Capital based in Newark, N.J.

The jobs outlook is expected to worsen before it improves. The national unemployment rate will peak at about 9.6% in mid-2010 at the earliest, forecasts Jay Brinkmann, chief economist for the Mortgage Bankers Association. The current unemployment rate is 7.6% nationally. Among college-educated workers, the unemployment rate has risen from 2% in 2008 to nearly 4% today. “That affects demand for office space,” emphasizes Brinkmann.

The high job losses overshadow the buzz surrounding the stimulus plan and the federal government’s consideration of forming a so-called aggregator bank, which would be funded in part by private capital and designed to buy up toxic bank assets.

“The stimulus, to the extent that it really does change the jobs picture, will help. But it’s sort of a show-me environment, and I think everyone in real estate knows that we lag the broader economy,” says Twardock. “We’re going to be one of the last sectors to pull out of this once job losses bottom and the economy starts to grow. It’s going to take that for real estate optimism to return.”

But Prudential isn’t remaining idle. The lender announced Monday its goal to originate $7 billion in commercial and multifamily loans in 2009. Some $4 billion of that total will be available for mortgages through its general account. The remaining $3 billion in financing will be available through Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and FHA, subject to market conditions. The company originated more than $2 billion in Fannie Mae loans in 2008, a 21% increase over the prior year.

“A few years ago, people were saying Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac weren’t relevant because borrowers could do everything through securitzation. Nobody is saying that today,” says Twardock, referring to the meltdown in the commercial mortgage-backed securities market. “Nobody is saying the private market can handle the broad housing problem. It’s fairly clear there is a need for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac through this cycle.”

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