Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Subprime Mortgage Mess on Wall Street

You're probably familiar with the problems on the home front created by subprime and other adjustable payment mortgages. Monthly payments are rising. Many homeowners are defaulting, and some face foreclosure. The problems are particularly acute in areas where housing prices rose abruptly and have now plummeted, or where economic distress is spreading.

The pain has spread to Wall Street. In the last week, the financial press has reported on difficulties at two hedge funds sponsored by an investment bank called Bear Stearns, which had invested indirectly in subprime mortgages. Bear Stearns agreed to provide a $3.2 billion loan to stabilize one fund. It's unclear what will happen to the other fund. What's going on here? How did we get from some defaulting homeowners in places like Michigan and Florida to a $3.2 billion bailout on Wall Street?

Here's an overview. We are speaking generally, and not about the Bear Stearns-sponsored hedge funds.

Fifty years ago, mortgage lending was primarily done by specialized banks usually called "Savings and Loan Associations" or "Building and Loan Associations." Broadly referred to as thrift institutions, these specialized banks held onto many or most of the mortgage loans they made. They earned profits from the difference between the interest they paid to depositors and the higher interest rate they charged for mortgage loans. Interest rates were stable in those days, and thrift institutions were able to make a comfortable living without working real hard.

In the 1970's, however, interest rates began to fluctuate widely, and the thrifts had a harder time maintaining profits. Regulatory restrictions on them were loosened in the early 1980's, but that resulted in a some poorly conceived lending strategies that led to the collapse of a number of thrift institutions. By 1990, the thrift industry was diminished and other players, like mortgage companies and banks, began to make more mortgage loans. They, however, did not hold onto the loans, but instead tended to sell them.

A mortgage provides a flow of cash, and can be bought or sold like a bond or other investment providing a cash flow. Investment banks pool large numbers of mortgages together into an entity often called a CDO (or collateralized debt obligation). These mortgage pools provide a large, aggregate flow of cash. Investment banks "subdivide" the aggregate flow of cash into classes called "tranches." Each tranche has different claims on the cash flowing from the pool of mortgages. The result is a tier of tranches, with the most "senior" having the best claim to the cash flow from the mortgage pool, the next most senior having the second-best claim, and so on, down to the most "junior" tranche, which basically has a speculative claim to the residual value of the pool.

The CDO issues bonds that correspond with the various tranches. The most senior bonds have the best claim to payment from the mortgage pool. The next most senior bonds have the second-best claim, etc. The potential returns from these bonds varies by the position of the bond in the hierarchy for repayment. The interest paid on the most senior bond will be the lowest, since its likelihood of repayment is the highest. The interest rate on the more junior bonds will increase, since they have greater risk of not being fully repaid. The most junior bond may even be called the "equity tranche," a term that reflects its high risk levels (not unlike the risks of equity investments like stocks).

Why did Wall Street create these CDO's? Because subdividing the mortgage pool into different tranches allowed them to sell a variety of investments that might serve the needs of different investors. Some investors want conservative, reliable investments with a low risk of default. They would be interested in the senior bonds. Other investors want bonds that pay a higher return, even if there's a greater risk of default. They'll take the risk of the default in order to get a better return, and would be interested in the more junior bonds. Some investors want to speculate, and the equity tranche, with its high returns and high risks--might fit into their strategy.

There has been, as you probably know, a hedge fund craze in recent years. Hedge funds have proliferated, and as their numbers have grown, their interest in new and different investments has grown. CDOs have drawn their interest. Hedge funds have borrowed, sometimes heavily, to invest in CDO bonds. Borrowing increases the quantity of bonds a hedge fund can buy and therefore leverages the returns it might receive if all goes well. However, borrowing also leverages the losses the hedge fund would receive if things go badly.

Things have gone badly. The real estate boom is over in most markets and defaults are occurring at well above normal levels. CDOs aren't receiving the cash flow they expected, and CDO investors like hedge funds are taking losses. Those that invested on a leveraged basis may be taking sharp losses.

How did this happen? On the most basic level, the market pros didn't correctly predict the level of defaults. That means they over-estimated the investment quality of many CDO bonds, and priced them too high. Losses are now resulting.

Who's responsible? Homeowners who took out mortgages they should have known they couldn't pay? Mortgage brokers, mortgage companies and banks that made loans to people who shouldn't have qualified? Investment banks packaging CDOs that didn't look close enough at the quality of the mortgages they were buying? Investors that borrowed to invest in illiquid assets like many CDO bonds? All of the above? Now that things are hitting the fan, Congress is holding hearings, government agencies are investigating, and lawsuits will be filed.

There has been very little regulation of the mortgage markets, especially at the Wall Street level, where hedge funds roam unsupervised among herds of CDOs. An absence of regulation sometimes allows markets to grow and evolve more quickly. But markets are created by humans and are therefore capable of error (as is evidenced by all the bubbles, booms and busts of recent years). The enormous growth of the mortgage market included many loans that never should have been made in the first place, and, once made, never should have been purchased for packaging in CDOs. Some of the losses from CDO investments are falling on wealthy individuals who invested in hedge funds to get money to buy a larger yacht. Such a shame. But other losses are falling on pension funds that ordinary people count on for retirement, or on university endowments that could help cover some of the costs of your child's education. In the end, many people will be hurt.

Congress, government agencies and state governments will be confronted by the question whether the mortgage industry should be more heavily regulated. If thrift institutions were still at the heart of the mortgage business, the problems we see today might never have happened. Thrift institutions were heavily regulated, and it's highly doubtful they would have been allowed to make the large numbers of low doc/no doc, don't-have-the-means-to-repay subprime mortgage loans that now weigh down on parts of Wall Street. Had those loans never been made, the losses wouldn't have occurred. And let's not think that subprime loans are a boon to home ownership. Extending loans that people can't pay and result in foreclosures not only doesn't increase home ownership, it damages the borrowers' credit ratings and impairs their future ability to own a home.

On an individual level, stay away from loans that have the potential for increasing monthly payments. As we discussed earlier, the right mortgage loan helps you build wealth.

Animal News: the search for Bigfoot continues.

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