Property Grunt

Monday, March 12, 2007

From bad to oh we are so f**ked: Part 2

Gretchen Morgenson gives the sitrep of the sub prime mortgage industry that is on the edge of going TARFU for not only for Wall Street but for the the economy. Here’s the rundown.

Crisis Looms in Mortgages
On March 1, a Wall Street analyst at Bear Stearns wrote a surprisingly upbeat report on a company that specializes in making mortgages to cash-poor homebuyers. The company, New Century Financial, had already disclosed that a growing number of borrowers were defaulting, and its stock, at around $15, had lost half its value in three weeks.
What happened next seems all too familiar to investors who bought technology stocks in 2000 at the breathless urging of Wall Street analysts. Last week, New Century said it would stop making loans and needed emergency financing to survive. The stock collapsed to $3.21.
The analyst’s untimely call, coupled with a failure among other Wall Street institutions to identify problems in the home mortgage market, isn’t the only familiar ring to investors who watched the technology stock bubble burst precisely seven years ago.
Now, as then, Wall Street firms and entrepreneurs made fortunes issuing questionable securities, in this case pools of home loans taken out by risky borrowers. Now, as then, bullish stock and credit analysts for some of those same Wall Street firms, which profited in the underwriting and rating of those investments, lulled investors with upbeat pronouncements even as loan defaults ballooned. Now, as then, regulators stood by as the mania churned, fed by lax standards and anything-goes lending.
Investment manias are nothing new, of course. But the demise of this one has been broadly viewed as troubling, as it involves the nation’s $6.5 trillion mortgage securities market, which is larger even than the United States treasury market.
Hanging in the balance is the nation’s housing market, which has been a big driver of the economy. Fewer lenders means many potential homebuyers will find it more difficult to get credit, while hundreds of thousands of homes will go up for sale as borrowers default, further swamping a stalled market.

“The regulators are trying to figure out how to work around it, but the Hill is going to be in for one big surprise,” said Josh Rosner, a managing director at Graham-Fisher & Company, an independent investment research firm in New York, and an expert on mortgage securities. “This is far more dramatic than what led to Sarbanes-Oxley,” he added, referring to the legislation that followed the WorldCom and Enron scandals, “both in conflicts and in terms of absolute economic impact.”
While real estate prices were rising, the market for home loans operated like a well-oiled machine, providing ready money to borrowers and high returns to investors like pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds and other institutions. Now this enormous and important machine is sputtering, and the effects are reverberating throughout Main Street, Wall Street and Washington.

When they all saw the profit margins from subprime mortgages, every institution that had reserves carpet bombed the industry with as much money as possible. I figured something was up when I began to hear chatter about other institutions liquidating their real estate holdings.

Already, more than two dozen mortgage lenders have failed or closed their doors, and shares of big companies in the mortgage industry have declined significantly. Delinquencies on loans made to less creditworthy borrowers — known as subprime mortgages —recently reached 12.6 percent. Some banks have reported rising problems among borrowers that were deemed more creditworthy as well.
Traders and investors who watch this world say the major participants — Wall Street firms, credit rating agencies, lenders and investors — are holding their collective breath and hoping that the spring season for home sales will reinstate what had been a go-go market for mortgage securities. Many Wall Street firms saw their own stock prices decline over their exposure to the turmoil.

If Wall Street is betting on the housing market to a pull a Lazarus act, well they might as well bet on the Red Sox winning another world series. Possible but highly unlikely.

The Bear Stearns analyst who upgraded New Century, Scott R. Coren, wrote in a research note that the company’s stock price reflected the risks in its industry, and that the downside risk was about $10 in a “rescue-sale scenario.” According to New Century, Bear Stearns is among the firms with a “longstanding” relationship financing its mortgage operation. Mr. Coren, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Bear Stearns is considered to be one of the most elite and badass investment banking firms in the world. These are people who do not easily exercise the cut and run option. They will look at every option and table and through hell or highwater they will stage a comeback.

Scott, if you are reading this, keep your head up. I know being in this situation really sucks ass but s**t happens. I mean its not as if you doing blow off the t*ts of a stripper at Scores while you were doing your analysis of the situation. From reading some of your interviews you are obviously someone who knows what they are talking about.

Others who follow the industry have voiced more caution. Thomas A. Lawler, founder of Lawler Economic and Housing Consulting, said: “It’s not that the mortgage industry is collapsing, it’s just that the mortgage industry went wild and there are consequences of going wild.
“I think there is no doubt that home sales are going to be weaker than most anybody who was forecasting the market just two months ago thought. For those areas where the housing market was already not too great, where inventories were at historically high levels and it finally looked like things were stabilizing, this is going to be unpleasant.”


Like worms that surface after a torrential rain, revelations that emerge when an asset bubble bursts are often unattractive, involving dubious industry practices and even fraud. In the coming weeks, some mortgage market participants predict, investors will learn not only how lax real estate lending standards became, but also how hard to value these opaque securities are and how easy their values are to prop up.
Owners of mortgage securities that have been pooled, for example, do not have to reflect the prevailing market prices of those securities each day, as stockholders do. Only when a security is downgraded by a rating agency do investors have to mark their holdings to the market value. As a result, traders say, many investors are reporting the values of their holdings at inflated prices.
“How these things are valued for portfolio purposes is exposed to management judgment, which is potentially arbitrary,” Mr. Rosner said.
At the heart of the turmoil is the subprime mortgage market, which developed to give loans to shaky borrowers or to those with little cash to put down as collateral. Some 35 percent of all mortgage securities issued last year were in that category, up from 13 percent in 2003.

Looking to expand their reach and their profits, lenders were far too willing to lend, as evidenced by the creation of new types of mortgages — known as “affordability products” — that required little or no down payment and little or no documentation of a borrower’s income. Loans with 40-year or even 50-year terms were also popular among cash-strapped borrowers seeking low monthly payments. Exceedingly low “teaser” rates that move up rapidly in later years were another feature of the new loans.

The rapid rise in the amount borrowed against a property’s value shows how willing lenders were to stretch. In 2000, according to Banc of America Securities, the average loan to a subprime lender was 48 percent of the value of the underlying property. By 2006, that figure reached 82 percent.

Mortgages requiring little or no documentation became known colloquially as “liar loans.” An April 2006 report by the Mortgage Asset Research Institute, a consulting concern in Reston, Va., analyzed 100 loans in which the borrowers merely stated their incomes, and then looked at documents those borrowers had filed with the I.R.S. The resulting differences were significant: in 90 percent of loans, borrowers overstated their incomes 5 percent or more. But in almost 60 percent of cases, borrowers inflated their incomes by more than half.

A Deutsche Bank report said liar loans accounted for 40 percent of the subprime mortgage issuance last year, up from 25 percent in 2001.
Securities backed by home mortgages have been traded since the 1970s, but it has been only since 2002 or so that investors, including pension funds, insurance companies, hedge funds and other institutions, have shown such an appetite for them.
Wall Street, of course, was happy to help refashion mortgages from arcane and illiquid securities into ubiquitous and frequently traded ones. Its reward is that it now dominates the market. While commercial banks and savings banks had long been the biggest lenders to home buyers, by 2006, Wall Street had a commanding share — 60 percent — of the mortgage financing market, Federal Reserve data show.
The big firms in the business are Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank and UBS. They buy mortgages from issuers, put thousands of them into pools to spread out the risks and then divide them into slices, known as tranches, based on quality. Then they sell them.

The profits from packaging these securities and trading them for customers and their own accounts have been phenomenal. At Lehman Brothers, for example, mortgage-related businesses contributed directly to record revenue and income over the last three years.

The issuance of mortgage-related securities, which include those backed by home-equity loans, peaked in 2003 at more than $3 trillion, according to data from the Bond Market Association. Last year’s issuance, reflecting a slowdown in home price appreciation, was $1.93 trillion, a slight decline from 2005.

In addition to enviable growth, the mortgage securities market has undergone other changes in recent years. In the 1990s, buyers of mortgage securities spread out their risk by combining those securities with loans backed by other assets, like credit card receivables and automobile loans. But in 2001, investor preferences changed, focusing on specific types of loans. Mortgages quickly became the favorite.
Another change in the market involves its trading characteristics. Years ago, mortgage-backed securities appealed to a buy-and-hold crowd, who kept the securities on their books until the loans were paid off. “You used to think of mortgages as slow moving,” said Glenn T. Costello, managing director of structured finance residential mortgage at Fitch Ratings. “Now it has become much more of a trading market, with a mark-to-market bent.”

What some real estate gurus do is that that buy a bundle of crappy properties and then they stage a big meeting where suckers gather around to see the no money down dance. What happens is that these bolos end up purchasing properties for no money down and think they got a great deal. But instead what they have is a property with an insane mortgage. But here’s the punchline. What these real estate gurus do is that they bundle up those mortgages and sell them to a syndicate while they pocket the money. What the syndicate does is trade the mortgages. It is also very similar to tax liens.
But it is sort of like a game of passing the hand grenade. What everyone is doing is trading a hand grenade. The last thing anyone wants is a default because that means they need to sell the property in order to collect any money on it. The mortgage is obviously more valuable if they are collecting a consistent profit from it. However if something happens where the owner defaults on the mortgage, then the pin is pulled and then it becomes a race against time for someone to dump it onto someone else.

This is what has been basically happening with all of these mortgages on Wall Street which are now most likely in the possession of the Chinese.

The average daily trading volume of mortgage securities issued by government agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for example, exceeded $250 billion last year. That’s up from about $60 billion in 2000.

Wall Street became so enamored of the profits in mortgages that it began to expand its reach, buying companies that make loans to consumers to supplement its packaging and sales operations. In August 2006, Morgan Stanley bought Saxon, a $6.5 billion subprime mortgage underwriter, for $706 million.
And last September, Merrill Lynch paid $1.3 billion to buy First Franklin Financial, a home lender in San Jose, Calif. At the time, Merrill said it expected First Franklin to add to its earnings in 2007. Now analysts expect Merrill to take a large loss on the purchase.

Just like Citi-Habitats, Julia B Fee and Corcoran, the people who have come out ahead are the ones who sold out ahead of the game. Sound familiar? During the dot com boom, a lot of people made mad money by simply selling out and cashing in on their stock. These lenders were smart to sell out and leave someone else holding the bag.

Nevertheless, some investors wonder whether the rating agencies have the stomach to downgrade these securities because of the selling stampede that would follow. Many mortgage buyers cannot hold securities that are rated below investment grade — insurance companies are an example. So if the securities were downgraded, forced selling would ensue, further pressuring an already beleaguered market.

“There are delayed triggers in many of these investment vehicles and that is delaying the recognition of losses,” Charles Peabody, founder of Portales Partners, an independent research boutique in New York, said. “I do think the unwind is just starting. The moment of truth is not yet here.”
On March 2, reacting to the distress in the mortgage market, a throng of regulators, including the Federal Reserve Board, asked lenders to tighten their policies on lending to those with questionable credit. Late last week, WMC Mortgage, General Electric’s subprime mortgage arm, said it would no longer make loans with no down payments.
Meanwhile, investors wait to see whether the spring home selling season will shore up the mortgage market. If home prices do not appreciate or if they fall, defaults will rise, and pension funds and others that embraced the mortgage securities market will have to record losses. And they will likely retreat from the market, analysts said, affecting consumers and the overall economy.
A paper published last month by Mr. Rosner and Joseph R. Mason, an associate professor of finance at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, assessed the potential problems associated with disruptions in the mortgage securities market. They wrote: “Decreased funding for residential mortgage-backed securities could set off a downward spiral in credit availability that can deprive individuals of home ownership and substantially hurt the U.S. economy.”

It appears that this is far from over. There is a possibility that we can ride the storm if the economy is able to hold its own but it looks everything is up in the air. All of this eerily reminds me of the boom when everyone put their money in those stocks and we know how that movie ended.

One thing I do know for sure is that the distressed properties market is going to explode. There are going to be a lot of dumpster diving in the real estate industry.