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(Reuters) - Big U.S. banks are hiring mortgage bankers to meet a surge in demand for home loans and refinancings, but they are still struggling to process applications, which could undermine the Federal Reserve's attempts to stimulate the economy.
Since the Fed announced its plan in September to buy up to $40 billion of mortgages a month, consumer mortgage rates have fallen more slowly and by less than they would have done in more normal times.
On average, 30-year home loan rates are down just 0.18 of a percentage point this week from September 13, when the Fed announced its latest stimulus program. Some analysts estimate that in more normal markets, rates would have fallen by roughly 0.31 of a percentage point or more. That could save a home buyer thousands of dollars over the lifetime of a mortgage.
The dysfunction in the mortgage market, which has yet to fully recover after its battering in the U.S. housing bust and subsequent financial crisis, means most benefits from the Fed's new stimulus plan may be accruing to banks instead of consumers.
Banks still committed to the home loan business are hiring to meet increased demand, but fewer banks are committed to the business after the 2007-2009 mortgage crisis pulverized some of the biggest lenders in the United States and wounded many others.
Capacity constraints work in the banks' favor. Profit margins for home lending are more than double their usual level, JPMorgan Chief Executive Jamie Dimon told investors last Friday. The major U.S. banks, including JPMorgan Chase & Co, Wells Fargo & Co and Citigroup Inc, all said mortgage operations boosted third-quarter profits.
Lenders making mortgages say they do not want to hire too many staffers only to lay them off when volume declines. The Mortgage Bankers Association estimates that banks will make $1.47 trillion of home loans this year for home purchases and refinancings, but then just $1.04 trillion in 2013, a decline of nearly a third.
"We are trying to ... not over hire," Andy Cecere, chief financial officer at U.S. Bancorp, said in an interview on Wednesday.
Top U.S. mortgage lender Wells Fargo added about 2,000 people in the third quarter as volume surged. Chief Financial Officer Tim Sloan said in an interview the bank is responding to the impact of the Fed's plan. Chase has increased its number of loan officers by 23 percent over the last year, and expects to keep hiring aggressively, said Kevin Watters, head of mortgage originations at JP Morgan Chase.
But mortgage applications are also jumping, rising nearly 17 percent in the week ended September 28. With demand that strong and no staffers to handle extra business, banks have little reason to cut rates much. In a speech on Monday, New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley acknowledged that difficulty, noting the Fed's efforts to stimulate the economy in recent years would have had a bigger economic impact if consumer mortgage rates were falling more.
Bank staffing issues are a headache for mortgage applicants already struggling with tough appraisals and wary lenders. Many borrowers tell Kafka-esque stories of bureaucracy, where what used to be a 30- to 60-day process has stretched to 90 days or more.
The mortgage business has grown much more concentrated. The top two mortgage lenders made 14 percent of mortgage loans in 2000, 29 percent of mortgages in 2006, and 44 percent in the first half of 2012, according to Inside Mortgage Finance data.
Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase are the top two lenders now, and their predecessor companies were the top in 2000.
In 2006, Countrywide Financial Corp - now owned by Bank of America Corp - and Wells were the top. Bank of America last year stopped buying loans from other banks after suffering billions of dollars of losses from its exposure to home loans, which has cut its volume in half and limited smaller banks' capacity to lend.
Bankers are unsure how long the refinancing bonanza will last.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Dimon told investors the mortgage boom will continue "next quarter, maybe for a couple of quarters after that but it won't last for that much longer."
Citigroup Chief Financial Officer John Gerspach told investors on Monday that figuring out how long the refinancing boom will last is "one of the big questions facing a lot of institutions at this point in time."
Smaller banks are struggling with the same questions.
Matt Williams, president of Gothenburg State Bank in Gothenburg, Nebraska, and incoming chairman of the American Bankers Association, said his bank was not adding staff even though its 28 employees were "stressed to the max right now."
Williams said his bank, with $125 million in assets, expects rates eventually will go up, cutting demand for refinancing.
Mortgage demand was rising even before the Fed announced its latest plan to buy home loans, but that announcement immediately lowered bank funding costs. The effect on bank revenues will take longer to show up, because it takes months to process and close mortgage applications.
For consumers, capacity constraints among mortgage lenders mean rates are not falling as much as they theoretically could.
The average 30-year consumer mortgage rate was 3.37 percent, Freddie Mac said on Thursday - about 1.13 percentage points higher than rates investors in mortgage bonds would accept, as measured by the "secondary rate" for mortgages guaranteed by Fannie Mae.
In the second half of 2011, the gap between consumer mortgage rates and the secondary rate averaged closer to about 0.9 percentage point, suggesting lenders could cut rates another 0.23 point. However, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae boosted fees for guarantees by 0.1 of a percentage point in August, meaning the difference may be only about 0.13 of a percentage point.
Reporting by Dan Wilchins in New York and Rick Rothacker in Charlotte, North Carolina; Additional reporting by David Henry and Michelle Conlin in New York and Emily Stephenson in San Diego; Editing by Paritosh Bansal, Martin Howell and David Gregorio