Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An arm and a leg

And not before time, either. Although Guambat lives on the early side of the dateline, where it is today when it is still yesterday Back There, he is mightily impressed with the September 11, 2006 dateline (which is well and truly tomorrow x5) of the latest BusinessWeek online cover story. In a couple of articles, BusinessWeek online explains how a whole bunch of homebuyers with option-ARM mortgages are going to loose an arm, while the banks that issue them are about to get a leg up with some un-intuitive accounting tricks allowing them to book "phantom profits" from the same mortgages. Here are some excerpts, but there is plenty more in the cover story and sidebar articles that bears a look-see:

Nightmare Mortgages

The option adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) might be the riskiest and most complicated home loan product ever created. With its temptingly low minimum payments, the option ARM brought a whole new group of buyers into the housing market, extending the boom longer than it could have otherwise lasted, especially in the hottest markets. Suddenly, almost anyone could afford a home -- or so they thought. The option ARM's low payments are only temporary. And the less a borrower chooses to pay now, the more is tacked onto the balance.

Gordon Burger is among the first wave of option ARM casualties. The 42-year-old police officer from a suburb of Sacramento, Calif., is stuck in a new mortgage that's making him poorer by the month. Burger, a solid earner with clean credit, has bought and sold several houses in the past.

After two months Burger noticed that the minimum payment of $1,697 was actually adding $1,000 to his balance every month. "I'm not making any ground on this house; it's a loss every month," he says. He says he was told by his lender, Minneapolis-based Homecoming Financial, a unit of Residential Capital, the nation's fifth-largest mortgage shop, that he'd have to pay more than $10,000 in prepayment penalties to refinance out of the loan. If he's unhappy, he should take it up with his broker, the bank said. In a written statement, Residential said it couldn't comment on Burger's loan but that "each mortgage is designed to meet the specific financial needs of a consumer."

Option ARMs were created in 1981 and for years were marketed to well-heeled home buyers who wanted the option of making low payments most months and then paying off a big chunk all at once. For them, option ARMs offered flexibility.

So how did these unusual loans get into the hands of so many ordinary folks? The sequence of events was orderly and even rational, at least within a flawed system. In the early years of the housing boom, falling interest rates made safe fixed-rate loans attractive to borrowers. As home prices soared, banks pushed adjustable-rate loans with lower initial payments. When those got too pricey, banks hawked loans that required only interest payments for the first few years. And then they flogged option ARMs -- not as financial-planning tools for the wealthy but as affordability tools for the masses. Banks tapped an army of unregulated mortgage brokers to do what needed to be done to keep the money flowing, even if it meant putting dangerous loans in the hands of people who couldn't handle or didn't understand the risk. And Wall Street greased the skids by taking on much of the new risk banks were creating.

Now the signs of excess are crystal clear. Up to 80% of all option ARM borrowers make only the minimum payment each month, according to Fitch Ratings. The rest of the money gets added to the balance of the mortgage, a situation known as negative amortization. And once balances grow to a certain amount, the loans automatically reset at far higher payments. Most of these borrowers aren't paying down their loans; they're underpaying them up.

Because banks don't have to report how many option ARMs they underwrite, few choose to do so. But the best available estimates show that option ARMs have soared in popularity. They accounted for as little as 0.5% of all mortgages written in 2003, but that shot up to at least 12.3% through the first five months of this year, according to FirstAmerican LoanPerformance, an industry tracker. And while they made up at least 40% of mortgages in Salinas, Calif., and 26% in Naples, Fla., they're not just found in overheated coastal markets: Through Mar. 31 of this year, at least 51% of mortgages in West Virginia and 26% in Wyoming were option ARMs. Stock and bond analysts estimate that as many as 1.3 million borrowers took out as much as $389 billion in option ARMs in 2004 and 2005. And it's not letting up. Despite the housing slump, option ARMs totaling $77.2 billion were written in the second quarter of this year, according to investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

Yet the banking system has insulated itself reasonably well from the thousands of personal catastrophes to come. For one thing, banks can sell some of their option ARMs off to Wall Street, where they're packaged with other, better loans and re-sold in chunks to investors. Some $182 billion of the option ARMs written in 2004 and 2005 and an additional $83 billion this year have been sold, repackaged, rated by debt-rating agencies, and marketed to investors as mortgage-backed securities, says Bear, Stearns & Co. (BSC ) Banks also sell an unknown amount of them directly to hedge funds and other big investors with appetites for risk.

The rest of the option ARMs remain on lenders' books, where for now they're generating huge phantom profits for some lenders. That's because, according to generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, banks can count as revenue the highest amount of an option ARM payment -- the so-called fully amortized amount -- even when borrowers make only the minimum payment. In other words, banks can claim future revenue now, inflating earnings per share.

"This is basically an IOU that may never get paid," says Robert Lacoursiere, an analyst at Banc of America Securities. James Grant of Grant's Interest Rate Observer recently wrote that negative-amortization accounting is "frankly a fraudulent gambit. But what it lacks in morality, it compensates for in ingenuity." The Financial Accounting Standards Board, which is responsible for keeping GAAP up to date, stands by its standard but told BusinessWeek in a written statement that it is "concerned that the disclosures associated with these types of loans [are] not providing enough transparency relative to their associated risks."

Risks or not, the accounting treatment is boosting reported profits sharply. At Santa Monica (Calif.)-based FirstFed Financial Corp. (FED ), "deferred interest" -- what an outsider might call phantom income -- made up 67% of second-quarter pretax profits. FirstFed did not respond to requests for comment. At Oakland (Calif.)-based Golden West Financial Corp. (GDW ), which has been selling option ARMs for two decades, deferred interest made up about 59.6% of the bank's earnings in the first half of 2006. "It's not the loan that's the problem," says Herbert M. Sandler, CEO of World Savings Bank, parent of Golden West. "The problem is with the quality of the underwriting."

In the middle of one of the hottest U.S. markets, Coral Gables (Fla.)-based BankUnited Financial Corp. (BKUNA ) posted a $14.8 million loss for the quarter ended June, 2005. Yet it reported record profits of $23.8 million for the quarter ended in June of this year -- $20.9 million of which was earned in deferred interest. Some 92% of its new loans were option ARMs. Humberto L. Lopez, chief financial officer, insists the bank underwrites carefully. "The option ARMs have gotten a bit of a raised eyebrow because we generate and book noncash earnings.'s our money, and we do feel comfortable we'll get it back."

Even the loans that blow up can be hidden with fancy bookkeeping. David Hendler of New York-based CreditSights, a bond research shop, predicts that banks in coming quarters will increasingly move weak loans into so-called held-for-sale accounts. There the loans will sit, sequestered from the rest of the portfolio, until they're sold to collection agencies or to investors. In the latter case, a transaction on an ailing loan registers on the books as a trading loss, gets mixed up with other trading activities and -- presto! -- it vanishes from shareholders' sight. "There are a lot of ways to camouflage the actual experience," says Hendler.

Concerns like these haven't curbed Wall Street's hunger for option ARMS. "At a price, you can originate or sell anything," says Thomas F. Marano, global head of mortgage and asset-backed securities at Bear Stearns. Hedge funds have been particularly active, buying risky loans directly from banks and cutting out the bundlers in the middle. Kathleen C. Engel, an associate professor of law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, says Wall Street and hedge fund money has helped to finance widespread lending abuses, particularly among the most vulnerable borrowers.

Why are hedge funds willing to buy risky loans directly? Because they can demand terms that help insulate them from losses. And banks, knowing what the hedge funds want in advance, simply take it out of the hides of borrowers, many of whom qualify for lower rates based on their credit histories. "Even if the loan goes bad, [the hedge funds are] still making money hand over fist," says Engel.

Eventually, some of it will go sour. But the Wall Street pros who buy option ARMs are in the business of managing risk, and no one expects widespread losses. They've taken on billons in iffy option ARMs, but the loans are no shakier than the billions in emerging market debt or derivatives they buy and sell all the time. Blowups are factored into the investing decision.

Banks that hold lots of option ARMs on their books will surely be hit by loan defaults in coming years. "It's certainly reasonable to expect to see some excesses wrung out," says Brad A. Morrice, president and CEO of New Century Financial Corp. But even here the damage will likely be limited. Banks use insurance and other financial instruments to protect their portfolios, and they hold real assets -- homes -- as collateral. Christopher L. Cagan, director of research and analytics at First American Real Estate Solutions, a researcher and unit of title insurer First American, forecasts total defaults of $300 billion across all types of loans, not just option ARMs, over the next five years -- less than 1% of total homeowner equity. (In comparison, JPMorgan Chase & Co. alone has a mortgage portfolio of $182.8 billion.) Cagan estimates that banks will end up losing only (sic) $100 billion of it all told.

Most of the pain will be born by ordinary people. And it's already happening. More than a fifth of option ARM loans in 2004 and 2005 are upside down -- meaning borrowers' homes are worth less than their debt. If home prices fall 10%, that number would double. "The number of houses for sale is tripling in some markets, so people are not going to get out of their debt," says the Ford Foundation's McCarthy. "A lot are going to walk."

And that will drive down the wealth of everyone else with a home.


Anonymous Loan Man said...

I totally agree that most folks that have been sold Option Arms, otherwise known as pick a pay (pick your death, as I like to call them), will be in for a shock in the next couple of years.
Used car salesmen and women sold these loans like hotcakes because it meant easy money for them. They did not give much though to how they would affect their clients.
Most borrowers fell into a hypnotic trap of believing that real estate prices would keep going up and up. They never gave much thought to the day the party would end.
Calculations by secondary market experts predict that anywhere from $8 to $11 billion dollars in adjustable mortgages will kick in the next couple of years. Most folks who are now in denial that real estate prices are not skyrocketing the way they did the last couple of years will be hit the hardest. Many of them borrowed the most they could to finance trips and buy all kinds of goodies.
Interest rates do not need to go up for payments to adjust. The very nature of these options arms means that borrowers are paying artificially low payments to begin with. So, if interest rates do go up, things will only be worse.
Option Arms like guns, are simply tools. They can help you if used the right way, or kill you if you misuse them. I would like to say that loan officers are primarily responsible for offering these loans to the wrong candidates, but many borrowers insisted on getting loans even after they were told the possible consequences.
My mission as I build my website will be to chase out all the wannabe loan officers that could care less how they hurt people, as long as they get what they want. I hope other loan officers will join me in an effort to clean up our industry.

6 September 2006 at 2:06:00 pm GMT+10  
Blogger Guambat Stew said...

You go, Loan Ranger!

7 September 2006 at 9:49:00 am GMT+10  
Anonymous Mort said...

Ah capitalism at work. It is always the way; the weakest hands are always left holding at the top. I should like to use some of this in the next Mort Report and of course quote my good friend JB. Hope you're all well and good to see you're back online. Mort

7 September 2006 at 10:39:00 am GMT+10  
Blogger Guambat Stew said...

Fantastic! Two (2) real comments. First the Loan Ranger, then the Loan Arranger. Can the blogosphere get any better?

7 September 2006 at 8:22:00 pm GMT+10  

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