Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Monster Within the Foreclosure Crisis

The foreclosure crisis is going from bad to worse. More foreclosures are stopping. Buyers are stepping back from bank owned properties. The U.S. Department of Justice has started looking into the mess.

The crisis is a tabloid's dream: Robo-signers gone wild, lawyers and courts operating foreclosure mills, homeowners booted through fraud, politicians pontificating, and subpoenas flying. But there's a Frankenstein that lurks within this house of horrors: the question of who owns mortgages. This is the worst aspect of the crisis, and if the problem is widespread, it could have extremely damaging consequences.

News coverage has reported that, sometimes, banks attempting to foreclose couldn't prove they owned the mortgage in question (or that they represented the true owner, if the bank was servicing the mortgage). When proof of ownership was lacking, the bank evidently provided courts with documentation that may not entirely be on the up and up. This practice, which could amount to a fraud on the court and be subject to criminal punishment, is now under review as banks, judges, plaintiffs lawyers, prosecutors, and all kinds of other folks try to sort things out.

If the ownership problem is widespread--and it might be, since it seems to have arisen from the hyper-pace of creation and securitization of trillions of dollars of mortgages in past years--the implications could be enormously bad. Banks would have to write off mortgages they can't prove they own, and reverse any past recognition of revenue and earnings from those mortgages. After all, banks can't claim as an asset a mortgage they don't own, nor can they recognize revenue from a non-owned mortgage. The sheer scale of mortgage lending and securitization is such that even if only 1% of mortgages are affected by ownership problems, the amounts involved could reach $100 billion or more of mystery mortgages. (There are about $14 trillion of mortgages outstanding, $7.5 trillion of which are securitized.) The U.S. banking industry would have a tough time swallowing another $100 billion of losses, especially now that banks already need to bulk up their capital to meet heightened capital requirements. Taxpayers, put your hands on your wallets.

Another implication of the mortgage ownership problem is that the downturn in the real estate market could be dragged out for years longer than otherwise. Foreclosures aren't legit unless the true creditor is seeking to collect the loan. It will now take months and even years to plow through legal records to establish true ownership of the many, many thousands of mortgages that might be in question. Buyers will step back from bidding for foreclosed properties. No matter, since some title companies aren't insuring title to such properties, so the banks probably couldn't sell them anyway. The foreclosures now in suspension won't be held off forever. Eventually, some resolution of the current mess will be achieved, those foreclosures will proceed, and the recovered properties resold. So these properties overhang the market, and buyers will be cautious about bidding even for non-foreclosure listings.

Then, there are the foreclosures in states where court approval isn't required. About 23 or so states that require court approvals for foreclosures. The rest allow foreclosures to proceed without court orders. But that doesn't mean that inability to prove ownership of the mortgage is okay in those states. To the contrary, booting a homeowner without being the true creditor on the mortgage probably violates the law in more than one way. Doing so may well be a fraud on the owner. If a sheriff's deputies were used to evict the owner, the lender might be deemed to have lied to sheriff. Lying to a peace officer is never a good idea. A subsequent buyer would not obtain clear title, so the lender might well be deemed to have perpetrated a second fraud. If such clouds over title are widespread, real estate markets in nonjudicial foreclosure states could be crippled for years, as title insurance companies try to sort out their risks and buyers stay away.

Another aspect of the mortgage ownership problem emerges in the securitization market. Large quantities of foreclosure mortgages are or were securitized. The mortgage ownership question implies that investors in the securitizations of those mortgages might or might not have invested in actual mortgages. To the extent, they did not, the banks that underwrote the securitizations can look forward to receiving investors' fraud claims. To make things worse, in the case of past foreclosures, investors who received the proceeds of foreclosures on mortgages they didn't actually have an interest in might be liable to repay the money. Needless to say, they would look to the banks servicing the mortgages for recompense. Given the apparently lousy state of the recordkeeping, the morass on the securitization end of the things could take years to clear up. The revival of the securitization market might be pushed back for a similarly long period. If things turn out to be really bad, securitization as a large-scale method of financing may be gone forever.

The foreclosure mess bears watching. It seems to be about where the financial crisis was in 2007: a year before we see the worst of things. If the foreclosure mess turns out to be a real monster, expect Wall Street and the real estate industry to try to dump it where the financial crisis ended up--in the laps of taxpayers. Whether that will be politically feasible is open to question. We are now witnessing the largest taxpayers' revolt since the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s. Maybe this time the banks will have to bear the losses they created.

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