How Paper Mortgage Losses Turned Real

The question that keeps coming up is this: If only a small portion of all mortgages are failing how come the general financial impact has been so enormous?

To resolve this mystery, let’s go back to the 1970s when the mortgage-backed security — the MBS — was developed. The MBS was a financial device designed to resolve a problem for investors. The problem? Imagine that you’re a loan investor and bought the mortgage on a single-family home. Your total income from the investment would be impacted if your one borrower was late, didn’t make a payment or was foreclosed.

With a MBS you own a security which is supported by a large number of mortgages, perhaps thousands. If someone misses a payment your income continues with little disruption.

In theory mortgage-backed securities make a great deal of financial sense.And in practice, until the past few years, mortgage-backed securities worked well.

Today mortgage-backed securities are troubled, especially those which include subprime loans. But why should this be? Even with subprime loans, the overwhelming majority of borrowers are making their payments.

About as good as an answer as you’ll find comes from Lew Ranieri, one of the developers of the MBS concept. As Ranieri told John Cassidy in The New Yorker, today MBS securities are fundamentally different from the paper that was invented several decades ago.

“They have created the perfect loans,” Ranieri says with irony of today’s mortgage-backed securities. “They didn’t know what the home was worth, they didn’t know what the borrower earned and the borrower wasn’t putting any money into the purchase. The system had gone completely nuts. A loan without a full appraisal, thorough underwriting, and full income verification was never what anyone envisioned when we started the market for mortgage-backed securities.” (See: “Subprime Suspect,” March 31, 2008)

You listen to Ranieri and it becomes obvious why mortgages have been so freely-available during the past few years. The answer has nothing to do with a push for more homeownership or some sort of philosophical imperative: If Wall Street is going to sell more high-profit mortgage-backed securities it needs a basic feedstock. What is that feedstock? More loans.

If it happens that a mortgage fails, who suffers? The loan officer has already been paid. The “lender” is often not a lender in the sense of a company with a vault stuffed with cash, but instead a retailer that instantly re-sells any loan it originates. If the borrower makes payments for a few months, the originating lender is then largely not responsible if the mortgage goes downhill.

With mortgage-backed securities the folks on Wall Street make money selling paper, real estate brokers make money selling homes, governments make tax money every time a home is sold or refinanced, title companies and attorneys make money with each closing. The list goes on but you get the idea.

What started out as a conservative way to protect investors morphed into something strange. You could buy a typical MBS or you could get a little more interest if you bought a somewhat riskier portion of a mortgage-backed security. But why worry — credit-raters gave MBS paper strong marks.

Unfortunately, the push for higher returns outpaced the push for financial sanity. Loans without full appraisals, stated-income mortgage applications, exploding ARMs, option ARMs and large numbers of interest-only loans will inevitably produce large numbers of distressed borrowers and outright foreclosures. Add in a gross lack of federal regulation — regulation that could easily have prevented the current mortgage meltdown — and the results we see today were pre-ordained.

Once a few mortgage-backed securities failed it meant that the assumptions used to value and rate all MBS paper needed to be reviewed. The value of MBS paper fell, so investors suddenly had less net worth and thus a lot less interest in once-attractive mortgage-backed securities.

For the folks on Wall Street, the problem was not lower MBS ratings but fewer MBS buyers. Essentially, brokerages and investment banks got caught with MBS and other sagging securities in their portfolios.

And this gets worse. There are not only mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs — securities backed with a variety of debts, including mortgages), there are also derivatives.

Derivatives are simply bets. While there is a limit to the number of MBS and CDOs you can have, there’s no limit to the number of derivatives. The value of these derivatives amounts to hundreds of trillions of dollars.

The good news? Most derivatives are hedged so that the investor has little financial exposure. The bad news? When you deal with hundreds of trillions of dollars a minor “whoops” can be worth billions and billions of dollars.

And that’s how a few foreclosures upset the strange world of mortgage-backed securities, CDOs and derivatives.


Published originally by The Real Estate Professional and posted with permission.

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