New York: Bank of America Corp. opened a unit in India to review home-valuation reports as it seeks to rebuild share in US mortgages at a lower cost, said four people with knowledge of the move.

“Workers in the new Bangalore office follow checklists to determine if appraisals are complete," said the people, who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorised to comment. “The firm also eliminated jobs of licensed US workers in its LandSafe business, the appraisal division of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company, which made $78.7 billion in loans last year," the people said.

“One of the biggest problems in the mortgage business is all the paperwork involved, and how do you engineer it to reduce the bottlenecks," said Bert Ely, an independent banking consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. “With offshoring, the potential for problems is always there, but it’s hard to be critical for trying to minimize costs."

Lenders around the world have vowed to boost revenue and curb spending to make up for sluggish loan growth and new regulations. Bank of America, which spent more than $45 billion to settle disputes tied to defective mortgages and foreclosures, is among the most aggressive cost-cutters with chief executive officer Brian T. Moynihan planning to save $8 billion a year. The firm slipped from being the biggest US mortgage lender in 2008 to fourth last year.

“Other firms have added staff in lower-cost cities. Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the New York-based investment bank, saw headcount in places including Bangalore and Salt Lake City almost double since 2007 to 22% of employees," CEO Lloyd Blankfein said in November.

Staff cuts

LandSafe has more than 2,000 associates in the US, according to the Plano, Texas-based firm’s website. In addition to appraisals tied to new home loans, it also conducts valuations on Bank of America’s portfolio of delinquent loans, of which the company had 667,000 on 31 March. In February, the lender cut about 5% of LandSafe employees, saying they weren’t needed as overdue loans fell.

“Licensed reviewers, who check the accuracy of appraisal valuations and can earn more than $100,000 a year, were among those who lost their jobs," the people said.

“Bank of America’s programme prevents paperwork errors from delaying loan applications," said Terry Francisco, a spokesman for the second-biggest lender by assets. “The overseas completeness checks, begun in August, don’t replace in-depth reviews done by licensed US staff," he said.

Overall consideration

“The overall consideration isn’t necessarily cost, although cost can be an element," Francisco said. “What we’re looking for is if there are patterns in certain areas where it looks like the reviews aren’t necessarily needed anymore."

“The US-based reviewers, who typically had at least five years of experience as appraisers, are required to confirm accuracy by doing independent assessments that conform to industry standards," the people said. The checklists in India cover 17 items such as whether the appraiser remembered to sign the report and include photographs of rooms, according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg.

“Relying more on checklists may increase the odds of defective reports going undetected," said Karen Mann, a Discovery Bay, California-based appraiser who testified for the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s 2011 report. “The FCIC examined the causes of the housing bubble and subsequent 2008 credit crunch."

Knowing shortcuts

Experienced, licensed appraisers know the shortcuts people take, so those reviewers can be invaluable, Mann said. With the checkboxes, they’re looking for things that don’t really have anything to do with values.

LandSafe workers complained last year about the decline in review work and its impact on their pay and job security, said a person with direct knowledge of the internal discussions. In response, LandSafe executive Tracy Sanderson said management couldn’t increase the number of reviews because of the expense, the person said. Sanderson didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Bank of America was forced to pay the most of any US lender to put the housing mess behind it after Moynihan’s processor Kenneth D. Lewis bought Countrywide Financial Corp. in 2008. The firm has finished paying the lion’s share of costs tied to faulty mortgages, Moynihan said in March.

Under Moynihan, 53, the firm pulled back as it struggled to fend off regulators and lawsuits. The company made $78.7 billion in home loans last year, or about 4% of the market, compared with $315 billion in 2008, when it had more than 20%, according to newsletter Inside Mortgage Finance.

Building back

“We’ve been building that back up, and expect to be in the 5% area as we exit the second quarter," chief financial officer Bruce Thompson told analysts on 11 June, adding that he expected market share would continue to rise. San Francisco- based Wells Fargo and Co. is ranked first, creating almost 1 in 3 US mortgages last year.

“Lenders are under pressure to reduce costs because demand for refinancings, the biggest source of volume for the firms, is falling amid surging mortgage rates. The average rate for a 30-year fixed loan rose to 4.46% from 3.93%, the biggest one-week increase since 1987," McLean, Virginia-based Freddie Mac said on Thursday in a statement.

Bank of America, which doesn’t disclose how many workers are outside the US, had 262,812 employees as of 30 March, or 5.7% fewer than a year earlier.

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