CHARLOTTE, N.C — At the North Carolina offices of mortgage lender HomeBanc Corp., Archie Clark is the only employee left. But in a few days, he’ll be gone, too.
“It’s pretty much a ghost town over there,” Clark said. “Somebody went in and took the furniture from the lobby. I don’t know who did that. I put some of the other stuff in the back and locked it up.”
When Clark finishes helping movers from the company’s Atlanta headquarters collect computers and other property, he’ll join the more than 25,000 workers nationwide who have lost jobs in the financial services industry since the beginning of the month — with more than half coming since last Friday. With few exceptions, the cuts are the direct result of woes in the nation’s housing market.
More layoffs are announced daily. On Wednesday, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. closed its “subprime” mortgage business, laying off 1,200 workers at 23 offices; Scottsdale, Ariz.-based 1st National Bank Holding Co. closed its wholesale mortgage unit and cut 541 jobs, and Accredited Home Lenders Holding Co. added 1,600 positions to the heap. The night before, banking giant HSBC said it would close a main financing office and cut 600 jobs.
Since the start of the year, more than 40,000 workers have lost their jobs at mortgage lending institutions, according to recent company layoff announcements and data complied by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Meanwhile, construction companies have announced nearly 20,000 job cuts this year, while the National Association of Realtors expects membership rolls to decline this year for the first time in a decade.
It’s an employment collapse that threatens to rival the massive layoffs in the airline industry that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when some 100,000 employees lost their jobs.
“It’s far from over,” said Bart Narter, a senior analyst with Celent, a Boston-based financial research and consulting firm. “The subprime lending collapse will continue to ripple through the financial sector.”
For five years, the nation’s housing market was booming and mortgage companies grew quickly, at times offering lucrative jobs to people with little experience. But as home values declined and interest rates rose in the past year, rising delinquencies and defaults — especially in subprime mortgages targeted at borrowers with risky credit — have pounded lenders who couldn’t keep pace.
“These kind of mortgage lenders just sprung up like mushrooms and grew like men,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive at Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “They staffed up and now you have a bust.”
America’s largest mortgage lender, Countrywide Financial Corp., began an undisclosed number of layoffs this week. Last week, Arizona mortgage lender First Magnus Financial Corp. shut down its operations and laid off nearly 6,000 workers. On Monday, Capital One Financial Corp. said it would shutter Greenpoint Mortgage, its wholesale mortgage banking business, and lay off 1,900 employees.
“It’s only been weeks,” Challenger said. “These companies are acting remarkably quickly, stopping on a dime.”
Andy Roach didn’t foresee the turmoil when he joined Greenpoint in March. As late as June, the 25-year industry veteran thought the business of making “Alternative A” mortgage loans — geared for those with slightly better credit than subprime borrowers — was on a solid track.
But in July, he said, spooked investors stopped buying the securities the company sold by repackaging the loans. A little more than a month later, Capital One announced that Roach and about 1,900 of his colleagues across the country were out of a job.
“It was evident that it was serious,” said Roach, 46, a regional manager in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove. “When you can’t sell the loans, when there’s no market for those loans, it put us in a bad, bad situation.”
Clark, 33, headed information technology operations for three HomeBanc offices in the Raleigh area. He had a feeling earlier this month that trouble was lurking, as the company began cutting back on perks and made some initial layoffs. On Aug. 9, HomeBanc filed for bankruptcy protection. They kept him on through the end of the month to collect equipment and “just go in and check on things.”
“It was pretty much a free for all in the office, people taking paper, stuff HomeBanc wouldn’t need,” he said. “I don’t feel like HomeBanc did anything. It was a perfect storm of a bad housing market.”
Two of Clark’s friends have already landed jobs with Countrywide. Another found work with an affiliate of First Magnus, and was almost immediately laid off again. Roach plans to open his own lending business, focusing on commercial business loans and originating home loans himself.
“The mortgage business isn’t dead — there’s just going to be less people in it,” Roach said.
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