More Grim News in the Mortgage Markets

Gretchen Morgenson, in Sunday’s New York Times, has an excellent front page story, “Crisis Looms in Market for Mortgages.” Her forecast is the worst is yet to come.

The story describes how delinquencies in the subprime market, already at 12.6%, are already high (we’ve pointed out before that borrowers are also starting to look shaky in the next-higher, so-called “alt-A” mortgages).

The scary bit is that the current level of problems have not yet registered at most of the investors in mortgage securities. Most fiduciaries have to keep their portfolios on a “mark to market” basis, meaning they value their assets at current market prices daily. But Morgenson tells us that isn’t how it’s done in the world of collateralized debt obligations. They aren’t marked to market until they are downgraded.

I assume that is what she is talking about when she refers to “pools” and not regular mortgage backed securities, since CDOs are a lot more complex by virtue of having mortgages from many institutions and then often using derivatives as well. MBS, by contrast, although they have valuation quirks, are far more straightforward. Yet these are marked to market at dealers and hedge funds. Are pension funds (and insurers) really that significant in this market? Despite her comment that this paper is traded more frequently than in the past, pension funds are generally not as trading oriented as, say, hedge funds or mutual funds. And they certainly wouldn’t trade if it would trigger a loss they didn’t want to recognize.

Morgenson tells us (citing experts) that things are likely to get worse because subprime borrowers became a significant part of the housing market, and their absence is likely to stall or reverse any housing recovery. But the ratings agencies appear disinclined to revise ratings, in part because they earn fees from issuers, and in part because they don’t want to be the ones to precipitate a collapse.

She did not discuss the impact this has had on Wall Street firms, except for the loss of a lucrative source of income, and writedowns on their acquisitions of subprime mortgage originators. She didn’t mention collateralized debt obligations by name, or how much the firms have lost on their own positions (although she did mention rumors that some firms had slashed their position values as of Feb. 28, a reporting date. Is that an end of quarter for anyone other than Goldman?)

Morgenson depicts a market on the verge of a Minsky moment:

….Wall Street firms and entrepreneurs made fortunes issuing questionable securities, in this case pools of home loans taken out by risky borrowers….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.”….

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…

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…

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.”

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.

Indeed, on Feb. 28, as the first fiscal quarter ended for many big investment banks, Wall Street buzzed with speculation that the firms had slashed the value of their numerous mortgage holdings, recording significant losses….

“I would not be surprised if between now and the end of the year at least 20 percent of BBB and BBB- bonds that are backed by subprime loans originated in 2006 will be downgraded,” Mr. Lawler said.

Still, the rating agencies have yet to downgrade large numbers of mortgage securities to reflect the market turmoil. Standard & Poor’s has put 2 percent of the subprime loans it rates on watch for a downgrade, and Moody’s said it has downgraded 1 percent to 2 percent of such mortgages that were issued in 2005 and 2006.

Fitch appears to be the most proactive, having downgraded 3.7 percent of subprime mortgages in the period.

The agencies say that they are confident that their ratings reflect reality in the mortgages they have analyzed and that they have required managers of mortgage pools with risky loans in them to increase the collateral. A spokesman for S.& P. said the firm made its ratings requirements more stringent for subprime issuers last summer and that they shored up the loans as a result.

Meeting with Wall Street analysts last week, Terry McGraw, chief executive of McGraw-Hill, the parent of S.& P., said the firm does not believe that loans made in 2006 will perform “as badly as some have suggested.”

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.

Another consideration is the profits in mortgage ratings. Some 6.5 percent of Moody’s 2006 revenue was related to the subprime market.

Brian Clarkson, Moody’s co-chief operating officer, denied that the company hesitates to cut ratings. “We made assumptions early on that we were going to have worse performance in subprime mortgages, which is the reason we haven’t seen that many downgrades,” he said. “If we have something that is investment grade that we need to take below investment grade, we will do it.”

Interestingly, accounting conventions in mortgage securities require an investor to mark his holdings to market only when they get downgraded. So investors may be assigning higher values to their positions than they would receive if they had to go into the market and find a buyer. That delays the reckoning, some analysts say.

“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.”

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