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The cost of servicing in 2003: total direct servicing expenses rose last year by 7.3 percent for servicers participating in the Mortgage Bankers Association's Cost of Servicing Study. A steady onslaught of prepayments saw net financial income from servicing decline for the third straight year.

AS THE INDUSTRY'S SERVICING ENGINES CONTINUED TO CHURN AT FULL STEAM FOR THE THIRD consecutive year, one might expect servicers to have mastered their game plans for these challenging business conditions. Surely the investments in technology, experience in balancing temporary and permanent employees, and tactical use of outsourcing should have paid off with increased profitability and productivity during these high-volume times. But the servicing picture in 2003 was mixed. * Helped by increases in ancillary fees and servicing fees based on higher loan balances, servicing net operating profit has continued to rise over the past few years, albeit at a slow rate. Total direct servicing costs per loan, however, also escalated, especially for personnel, customer service and servicing systems. And, for the third consecutive year, servicing net financial income declined as mortgage servicing rights (MSR) impairments and amortization outweighed hedging gains. * These are some of the key findings from the Mortgage Bankers Association's (MBA's) latest annual Cost of Servicing Study (COSS), now in its sixth year. * MBA conducts its benchmarking study and Servicing Operations

Forum annually in order to provide servicing managers with detailed information on costs, productivity and overall profitability. The COSS is designed to accommodate servicers of different sizes and peer group characteristics. Larger servicers can allocate costs to and see the corresponding results in 17 functional areas; smaller servicers, which often have fewer distinct departments, can opt to allocate expenses to six functional areas. As part of the study, participants are invited to the Servicing Operations Forum held in June to review aggregate results and to discuss servicing practices.

For purposes of comparing operational and financial data results, companies are organized into peer groups based on the number of loans serviced. Although we present most data based on the weighted average results from this grouping, the study gives participants an ability to understand further the factors that drive cost and performance by providing metrics from four additional peer grouping categories: percentage of government share serviced, ownership type, churn rates and delinquency rates. This article highlights outcomes from the 2004 MBA COSS and feedback from servicers at the Servicing Operations Forum.

In addition to key findings noted earlier, the COSS results also revealed the following:

* Small servicers in particular struggled to keep direct servicing costs contained, even though their servicing churn was lower than larger servicing peers.

* Productivity (loans serviced per servicing full-time equivalent [FTE]) dropped from 2002 to 2003, despite the use of outsourcing services to handle certain servicing functions.

* The largest servicers were hit hardest by negative amortization and impairments of servicing rights, and ended up with the lowest servicing financial profitability as a result.

* When it comes to metrics that relate to customer relationships, small servicers appeared to fare better than large operations, with better customer retention ratios, more cross-sell/ancillary products per servicing customer, a higher percentage of customers with multiple products and lower incoming call abandonment rates.

The COSS sample

The companies that comprised the 2003 data sample represent a broad cross-section of mortgage servicers with various portfolio sizes, geographic location, investor mix and operational practices. Together they serviced 25.4 million loans for a total mortgage debt outstanding of $3.1 trillion, representing approximately 48 percent of the total U.S. servicing market.

Reflecting industry consolidation and the addition of several large participants over the past five years, the average portfolio size of the firms in the COSS sample grew to 818, 249 loans in 2003 from 380,671 in 1999. Similarly, the number of servicing FTE personnel per company rose to 785 in 2003 from 340 in 1999. Increases in loan balances and churn factors were on track with overall industry trends (see Figure 1). In terms of loan composition, the breakdown was similar to years past with a slight decline in the government share: 71.7 percent conventional conforming, 16.6 percent government, 3.8 percent jumbo, 1.5 percent subprime and 6.4 percent other loan types.

Overall servicing profitability

As in other years of this "never-ending" refinancing boom, overall profitability results for servicers were two-pronged. Net operating profit, which excludes amortization of servicing rights, impairments, hedging gains or losses and bulk servicing sales, was relatively stable over the last three years and rose by a marginal amount to an average $363 per loan in 2003 from $358 in 2002 (see Figure 2).

Net financial income (the "bottom line" for the servicing business), on the other hand, precipitously fell to an average loss of $148 per loan in 2003, compounding the overall perloan losses of $59 in 2001 and $96 in 2002 (see Figure 3).

Servicing revenues

Servicing net operating profits have remained steady over the past several years, primarily through increased servicing revenues that offset direct servicing cost increases (see Figure 4). Escalating loan balances were the primary drivers of revenues, enabling net servicing fees (service fees less guaranty and subservicing fees paid) to reach $428 per loan in 2003 from $414 in 2002.

By analyzing service fees through basis points, we eliminate the effects of sheer loan size and found that weighted average servicing fees actually declined to 35 basis points in 2003 from 37 basis points in 2002. The decline primarily can be attributed to the relative loss in government (Federal Housing Administration [FHA]/Department of Veterans Affairs [VA]) share as a percentage of total serviced loans (from 21 percent to 17 percent). Government loans historically have had higher service fees than conventional loans.

Ancillary income continued to contribute significantly to the overall profitability equation. Even in an environment of scrutiny on fees and collection practices, average ancillary income rose to $79 per loan in 2003, a 26 percent increase over 2002. Late charges accounted for 44 percent of ancillary income, with prepayment fees, payoff fees and quick payment fees accounting for other sizable portions (see Figure 5).

The concept that some firms actually can pay for their entire servicing direct costs through ancillary fees was true for nearly one-third of the companies in the COSS sample. Ancillary income was greater than a company's direct cost (excluding foreclosure, real estate-owned [REO] and other losses) for 29 percent of these servicers.

A final revenue component, net escrow earnings from the float income on custodial balances, rose to $87 per loan in 2003 from $83 in 2002. The increase largely reflects the impact of housing appreciation, which has moved property tax assessments and insurance premiums upward, as well as the larger servicers' efficiency in assessing and collecting escrow payments from borrowers.

Servicing expenses

Direct servicing costs on a weighted average basis averaged $91 per loan, including foreclosure and REO losses, and $80 per loan, excluding such items. The primary line-item drivers of increases in 2003 were overall personnel expense and service bureau fees, which rose 11 percent and 30 percent, respectively, over the previous year.

Within servicing's functional areas, servicing systems, customer service and investor services posted higher expenses on a per-loan basis over 2002 at 31 percent, 14 percent and 8 percent, respectively (see Figure 6). This comes as no surprise, given the high payoff environment and continuous demands put on customer service and payoff personnel to answer inquiries and process payoffs.

In fact, the operating environment for servicers during 2003 was such that the number of loans subtracted from a servicer's portfolio jumped 32 percent over the previous year, to a point where the average servicer turned over its portfolio more than 100 percent. The overall churn factor (defined as total loans added, paid off or transferred out divided by the beginning year servicing loan count) was at 102 percent in 2003, from 96 percent in 2002 and 63 percent in 2001.

Other costs that factor into the profitability equation include "indirect" expenses such as mortgage-backed security (MBS) interest expense, interest expense on servicing assets and corporate allocations for such functions as technology support, human resource functions and corporate finance. Together, these added another $140 per loan in costs and showed substantial increases over the previous year (see Figure 7).

MBS interest expense--or the amount of uncollected interest required to be passed on to security holders when a loan is not paid off on the first day of the month--was the largest contributor to the overall increase in indirect expense, climbing 53 percent to $78 per loan in 2003 from $53 per loan in 2002.

MSR amortization, impairments and hedge gains

Net financial income adds to net operating income the effect of amortization of servicing rights, servicing right valuation adjustments (e.g., impairments), hedging gains/losses and gains/losses on the bulk sales of servicing rights.

Prepayments from 2003's phenomenal industrywide 66 percent refinancing rate further battered MSR impairment and amortization line items. These and other financial components averaged $511 per loan in losses in 2003, resulting in a weighted average net financial loss of $148 per loan.

Notwithstanding that amortization rose 30 percent from 2002 to 2003, the one bright spot in this picture was that hedging instruments appeared to be working. In fact, hedging gains offset impairments by virtually 100 percent in 2003. This offset percentage has improved over the last six years as MSR hedging instruments have become more widely used.

Impact of peer groupings on profitability and productivity

Because the overall average revenues and costs heavily reflect the weighting of the largest servicers, the COSS also includes 25th percentile and 75th percentile rankings along with both simple and weighted averages for each of three size groups: servicers with fewer than 100,000 loans ("small servicers"), servicers with 100,000 to 750,000 loans ("mid-tier" servicers) and servicers with more than 750,000 loans ("large" servicers).

Revenue and direct expenses generally favored the large servicers. Driven by higher loan balances, they were able to garner higher per-loan service fees and ancillary fees than small servicers. Also, as in past years, direct expenses (including foreclosure, REO and other losses) for the mid-tier and large servicers continued to be significantly lower than the small servicers that averaged $148 per loan in direct cost versus $78 to $93 per loan for the other peer groups (see Figure 8). The primary differences between the small servicer group and the other groups were in personnel costs, outside service bureau fees and occupancy and equipment line items.

Not only were personnel costs higher for the small servicers, but productivity (loans serviced per FTE) was lower overall (see Figure 9). The smallest servicing group averaged 508 loans per FTE, compared with 1,043 loans per FTE for the full sample. Not surprisingly, the smaller servicers showed less specialization of servicing personnel, less automation of servicing processes and less use of outsourcing services compared with the other groups.

These productivity results also led us to look at the impact of outsourcing on direct costs. The bottom-line reason for servicers to use outsourcing is to reduce expenses. Managing personnel costs and count as servicing volume ebbs and flows, and eliminating large systems maintenance requirements are primary factors. But is it less expensive to pay for third-party services? Simply taking the COSS participants in the top 25 percent with regard to the highest percentages of outsourcing expense relative to their total direct expenses, we found this group to have an overall weighted average direct cost to service lower than that of the overall average by just more than $10 per loan, or 13 percent.

In terms of the financial items (amortization, impairment, hedging, etc.), the tables again turn. The small servicer group had 3.5 times less the dollar-per-loan losses in financial items as the large servicer group. Ultimately, the small servicer group posted the best financial bottom line (or the fewest losses, depending on one's perspective), with servicing losses of $35 per loan compared with $158 per loan in losses for the large servicer group.

In addition to servicing count, the COSS analyzed results based on other peer groupings. While these other analyses are not the focus of this article, we found one peer group's outcome of particular interest. In looking at servicers based on government servicing percentages, the higher costs and lower numbers of loans serviced per FTE were found in the middle grouping of this cut. This suggests that companies with the highest government-to-total-servicing ration have developed competency in servicing these kinds of loans, which mitigates some of the additional efforts inherent in servicing government loans.

The functional areas of servicing

Although the revenue, cost and profitability results for the study overall and for the various peer groups provide a useful snapshot of benchmark metrics, servicing managers want to be able to drill into the components of the controllable costs in their direct functional areas. In particular, how did they perform relative to the industry and to peers for specific line items within these functions? What can they learn to increase productivity and/or lower costs?

The COSS allows servicers to submit personnel and expense data and to analyze their operations into either 17 or six functional areas. Large servicers that have distinct departments generally choose the 17 functional areas option.

For this subgroup, outputs based on the 17 functional areas were generated. The more detailed 17 areas were then rolled up and aggregated into the six functional areas, for the purpose of generating reports based on the full sample of reporting servicers. These areas are: 1) customer service; 2) escrow administration, taxes and insurance; 3) investor services and cashiering; 4) default management; 5) servicing systems; and 6) all other functions.


The customer service function includes costs associated with customer inquiries as well as payoff and post-payoff processing. It accounts for the largest proportion of total direct costs, at one-third, and thus is a primary factor in the overall cost to service. Costs in this function rose 14 percent over 2002 to $26.73 per loan.

Handling customer inquiry volume continued to be a challenge in 2003. Servicers reported an average of 5.4 inquiries per loan serviced, up from 4.5 inquiries per loan in 2002. Approximately 77 percent of customer inquiries were handled via call centers, 22 percent through electronic means and only 1 percent through written means or other ways. Calling the servicer directly was still the preferred method of communication, but we have seen the percentage of electronic communications rising over the past several years.

The COSS revealed a number of distinctions among group sizes when it comes to customer service. This is the one functional area where the largest servicers continued over the past several years to have higher per-loan costs. Contributing factors include more inquiries per customer, higher employee turnover and higher personnel costs than the smaller servicers.

Small servicers appeared to be closer to their customers. During 2003's refi surge, they retained 40.5 percent of their existing customers, compared with 31.9 percent for the largest servicer group.

In addition, small servicers in the study had the lowest call abandonment rate of any peer group. They also reported that 42.5 percent of their customers have multiple products and that they are able to cross-sell 2.9 ancillary products per customer. In contrast, the largest servicer group reported 38.7 percent of their customers with multiple products and 1.7 ancillary products per customer (see Figure 10).

The mid-tier servicer group had the highest call abandonment rate, the lowest percentage of customers with multiple products and the fewest cross-sell products. This, perhaps, suggests that small servicers can leverage their community base while the largest servicers have the means for more elaborate marketing and customer care programs in place.

While these mid-tier players did not appear to have a cross-sell push, their customer service costs were more in line with the smaller servicers than the high-cost large servicing group. It appears they might have sacrificed exceptional customer care in keeping customer service costs contained.

The COSS data does not conclusively show that outsourcing reduced customer service costs. Although the percentage of servicers that outsource some portion of their incoming or outgoing customer-service calls rose to 29 percent from 23 percent in 2002 (see Figure 11), we saw that overall costs in this functional area also rose. Several companies, however, indicated that costs were at least contained using these third-party services. They suggested that in the long run, costs might be better managed through outsourcing because they could better match personnel and servicing volume.


Escrow administration, taxes and insurance (EATI) include escrow analysis and processing, real estate tax analysis and processing, insurance payment processing and research. EATI costs remained constant over the past reporting year at $5.42 per loan.

The large servicers had a clear advantage in terms of EATI costs, which were about one-third the cost of the small servicers.

Several factors explain this difference: lower employee turnover, higher nonmanagement-to-management FTE ratios, higher employee productivity (driven by outsourcing) and lower escrow personnel expense per loan serviced. Compared with small servicers, the majority of the large servicers also reported that they had automated processes for tax and insurance setup, as well as escrow data transfer for refinanced loans.

Outsourcing was a common practice in this area, with almost all servicers having some form (see Figure 11). Several firms began or increased their use of strategic outsourcing relationships in the form of joint ventures and limited liability corporations for the tax function in particular.


The investor services and cashiering function includes investor reporting and remittances, payment posting and processing. This function averaged $7.73 per loan, up from $7.14 in 2002. Again, there was a large gap between the small and large servicers. The key to understanding differences in servicer costs in this functional area is to review the extent to which servicers were able to automate processes to increase accuracy, save time and thus contain costs.

For example, servicers overall were able to increase their use of electronic remittance reports to 51 percent in 2003 from 41 percent in 2002. The large servicers, however, averaged as high as 70 percent electronic reporting, while the small servicers were at 44 percent.

The use of electronic payment methods continued to increase from previous years, including the use of quick payment methods (such as SpeedPay, QuickPay and PhonePay) and automated clearing house (ACH) via borrower checking accounts. But servicers still relied heavily on borrowers mailing their monthly payments (via coupons or statements). The breakdown of how payments were received by servicers is shown in Figure 12. Several servicers indicated that going forward they intend to focus more heavily on encouraging borrowers to remit payments electronically in their ongoing efforts to keep costs down.


Default management includes collections, loss mitigation, foreclosure and bankruptcies, and REO activities. Costs relating to the default management departments averaged $14.84 per loan, slightly down from $15.87 in 2002.

These costs exclude unreimbursed foreclosure and REO expenses and credit-related losses (such as losses from early pay defaults, uninsured loans, VA no-bids, etc.). These losses added another $11.36 per loan in cost for a total of $26.20 per loan in 2003 (a 5 percent increase over 2002).

An addition to the COSS analysis this past year was to distinguish unreimbursed foreclosure and REO expenses that were due to servicer errors (such as interest loss/penalties due to missed investor deadlines or noncompliance with investor requirements) versus those that were not (e.g, FHA attorney fees). Based on the findings, roughly half of reported unreimbursed foreclosure and REO expenses were the result of servicer error.

Another COSS change was to report unreimbursed foreclosure and REO expenses per foreclosure. For conventional conforming loans, companies reported average unreimbursed expenses of $3,051 per foreclosure. For FHA and VA loans, this number grew to $3,556 and $4,490 per foreclosure, respectively.


For COSS purposes, "servicing systems" is defined as technology specifically related to servicing, such as service bureau fees and vendor-supported or proprietary servicing systems, exclusive of corporate technology allocations (e.g., network administration and companywide software). The largest increase in costs from 2002 to 2003 was in the servicing systems area, which moved from $8.93 per loan in 2002 to $11.66 per loan in 2003--a 31 percent jump.

Year-over-year, systems-related costs trended upward as technology became a critical necessity to keep the servicing engines going and to keep costs down in other functional areas of servicing. The primary driver of the 2002 to 2003 uptick was service bureau fees, which averaged $6.37 per loan overall and increased across the board for all servicing peer groups.

While the larger servicers seemed to have the advantage on cost in relation to servicing systems (a direct servicing expense), they had higher technology corporate allocations charged to their servicing departments (e.g., for companywide network support, help desk, standard employee software, etc.).

Adding together the direct "servicing systems" charges (a direct expense) with these general technology corporate allocations (an indirect expense), the playing field was more level. In fact, factoring in the corporate allocations, there was little difference in overall servicing department technology costs per loan between the large and small servicers, averaging about $20 per loan across all peer groups.


Other functions include a number of areas that support servicing, such as new loan setup, sales and acquisitions, records, servicing management and special loans. Direct costs in this aggregate function were $13.71 per loan in 2003, down 11 percent from 2002. Contributing factors to this decrease might include efficiencies in record-keeping and document storage (e.g., as the result of imaging documents), reduced servicing management overhead and automation in loan setup processing.

In regard to new loan setups, large servicers were more likely to use electronic methods for loan setup than the small servicers. Not surprisingly, the large servicer group reported a lower percentage of loans set up with errors (4.8 percent versus 10.6 percent for the small servicers).

Nevertheless, while costs may have been contained through automation, the high volume of servicing activity nonetheless took its toll, as all peer groups reported higher error rates compared with 2002.

Final thoughts

As in past years, the COSS does show that bigger is better when it comes to the direct cost to service and productivity, operational variables that operations managers are expected to control. But economies of scale do not necessarily result in a favorable bottom line. Furthermore, smaller servicers appear to be in the best position to leverage their customer relationships.

The COSS results raise many questions regarding the future of the mortgage servicing business. As servicing portfolios begin to stabilize, what functional areas will servicing managers be targeting for efficiency improvement and cost control? What will happen to outsourcing? What can large servicers learn from these smaller players, particularly in regard to customer relationships? How can the smaller servicers better leverage technology and best practices? To what extent will technology spending result in cost containment or revenue generation? Where are the upcoming revenue opportunities?
Figure 1 COSS Participant Characteristics

 1999 2000 2001

Average Number of Loans 380,671 525,216 683,559
Average Servicing Portfolio ($mil) $36,751 $49,990 $72,098
Average Loan Balance $96,543 $95,182 $105,475
Loans Added/Portfolio N/A 15% 34%
Loans Subtracted/Portfolio N/A 12% 28%
Churn Factor N/A 40% 63%
Average FTEs (including temps) 340 452 690

 2002 2003

Average Number of Loans 825,713 818,249
Average Servicing Portfolio ($mil) $93,045 $100,319
Average Loan Balance $112,685 $122,602
Loans Added/Portfolio 49% 52%
Loans Subtracted/Portfolio 38% 50%
Churn Factor 96% 102%
Average FTEs (including temps) 786 785


Figure 2 Net Operating Profit per Loan Serviced


1999 $248
2000 $289
2001 $354
2002 $358
2003 $363

Note: Net operating profit=direct servicing net income plus net interest
income less corporate administrative allocations

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Figure 3 Financial Items ($ per loan)

 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003

Amortization $(154) $(185) $(363) $(393) $(517)
Impairment 14 (9) (215) (364) (125)
Hedging Gains/(Losses) (20) (4) 162 299 124
Bulk Sale of Servicing 9 8 3 4 7
Total Financial Items (151) (191) (413) (453) (511)
Net Financial Income $97 $101 $(59) $(96) $(148)


Figure 4 Servicing Revenues per Loan Serviced

 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003

Net Escrow Earnings $64 $79 $89 $83 $87
Ancillary Income $43 $46 $55 $62 $79
Net Servicing Fees $290 $332 $402 $414 $428
 $397 $457 $546 $559 $594


Note: Table made from bar graph.

Figure 5 Components of Ancillary Income in 2003

Late Charges 44%
SpeedPay/QuickPay/PhonePay 6%
Optional Insurance 6%
Payoff Fees 10%
Bi-Weekly Program Fees 1%
Advertising Supplement Fees 0.3%
Prepayment Fees 19%
NSF Charges 0.6%
Renewal Conversion Fees 1%
Other Ancillary Income 11%
Total Ancillary Income: $79 per loan


Note: Table made from pie chart.

Figure 6 2002 vs. 2003 Results ($ per loan) (including foreclosure and

Direct Costs 2002 2003 % Change

Customer Service 23.39 26.75 14%
EATI 5.42 5.42 0%
Investor Services 7.14 7.73 8%
Default 24.91 26.16 5%
Servicing Systems 8.93 11.66 31%
Other 15.39 13.71 -11%
Total Direct Expenses 85.18 91.43 7.3%


Figure 7 Total Costs per Loan Serviced

 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003

Direct Costs, incl. F/C & REO 71 73 79 85 91
Indirect Costs 78 95 114 116 140
Total Costs 149 168 193 202 231

Note: Indirect costs include MBS interest expense, interest expense on
servicing assets and corporate allocations.

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Figure 8 2003 Total Direct Costs (including foreclosure and REO)

 <100 100-749 >750 2003 Total 2002 Total

25th Percentile 78 65 73 67
75th Percentile 157 95 96 97
Weighted Average 148 78 93 91 85


Note: Table made from bar graph.

Figure 9 2003 Loans Serviced Per FTE

 <100 100-749 >750 2003 Total 2002 Total

25th Percentile 622 929 968 824
75th Percentile 942 1,296 1,255 1,219
Weighted Average 508 1,096 1,046 1,043 1,051


Note: Table made from bar graph.

Figure 10 Retention and Cross-Sell

 Peer Groups by Loans Serviced (000s)
 <100 100-749 >750 Total

# Cross-Sell Products per
 Servicing Customer 2.9 0.9 1.7 1.7
% Servicing Customers with
 Multiple Products 42.5% 12.2% 38.7% 28.4%
Customer Retention Ratio* 40.5% 23.0% 31.9% 30.8%

*Loans added that are from current customers divided by total loans
added--originations (Note: averages exclude 0 reporters)

Figure 11 Customer Service and Escrow Outsourcing

% of Companies with Outsourcing Total

Customer Service Calls 29%
Discharge (Lien Release) 26%
Customer Service Training 10%
Full Insurance Process 45%
Insurance Bill Procurement/Payments 45%
Insurance Setup 26%
Full Tax Process 65%
Tax Bill Procurement/Payments 84%
Tax Line Setup 55%

*Partially, fully or joint venture/limited liability corporation

Figure 12 Receipt of Borrower Payments

Mail (Coupons) 14.8%
Mail (Statement) 48.4%
ACH (via Checking/Savings Account) 18.9%
In Bank Branch 5.9%
Internet 3.1%
QuickPay/SpeedPay/PhonePay 5.3%
Other Means 3.6%


Note: Table made from pie chart.

Rita Ballesteros is a principal with the consulting firm The Hollister Group LLC, Washington, D.C. She can be reached at Marina Walsh is a senior financial analyst in the Research and Business Development Department of the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at
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Title Annotation:Servicing
Author:Ballesteros, Rita; Walsh, Marina
Publication:Mortgage Banking
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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