Sunday, January 9, 2011

It's Not Just a Foreclosure Problem, It's an Accounting Problem

A recent decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (U.S. Bank, NA v. Ibanez, Jan. 7, 2011) to block certain foreclosures has deeper implications than has generally been reported. The court ruled that two banks, trustees holding pools of securitized mortgages that tried to foreclose on two of the mortgages, hadn't submitted the documentation required to establish valid ownership of the mortgages. Thus, the banks couldn't prove they legally held the mortgages in question, and consequently couldn't foreclose. Nor could they obtain title to the mortgaged homes when they purported to buy them at the auction, so they couldn't resell them. Although the court didn't expressly say so, the homes would appear to be still owned by the original mortgage borrowers.

The court's decision implies that, for perhaps numerous securitized mortgages in Massachusetts, foreclosure may be difficult or near impossible. Such a legal conclusion, if applied nationwide, would gum up the recovery of the real estate markets. Even though halting foreclosures will hold homes off the market (because foreclosing banks can't resell what they don't legally own), prospective buyers will be cautious with the prices they pay for the remaining houses on the market. The foreclosure problems will eventually be resolved and foreclosed homes would then be dumped onto the market. This would push prices downward. Anyone who paid an optimistic price today could end up underwater in a year or two. The real estate markets will not stabilize until the foreclosure problems are dealt with. Delaying them, which will be the result of the Massachusetts decision and similar decisions by the lower courts of other states, will only postpone the day of reckoning. And the delay will add to the costs to the banks for having been so careless about documentation requirements.

What makes things worse is that there's more than a foreclosure problem here. If mortgages haven't been legally transferred to trustee banks, the principal process for financing home purchases--securitization--would have broken down. Mortgages being securitized are supposed to be pooled together and held by trustees for the benefit of investors. The big banks that underwrote the mortgage-backed securities would have breached their contracts to the investors by failing to deliver mortgages to the securitization pool. Investors could demand their money back. And refuse to accept losses the banks claim were sustained on defaulting mortgages, on the ground that those mortgages were never validly transferred to the securitization pool and the investors have no liability for losses from mortgages not held by the pool.

Moreover, depending on how the courts interpret the law, the banks might be liable for fraud, especially if bank officers were aware of the documentation deficiencies but sold mortgage-backed investments anyway. That could result in more liabilities, to investors and in SEC enforcement actions. In the worst case scenario, criminal charges could be filed. Since trillions of dollars of mortgages have supposedly been securitized, but now perhaps weren't, the potential liabilities could be very large.

Another problem would come up with mortgages that banks bought, either directly or as part of a securitization offering. If those mortgages have the same documentation problems the Supreme Judicial Court found deficient, the banks wouldn't really own the mortgages (or securitized interests in them), but would have reported phantom assets on their balance sheets. Again, depending on how widespread the documentation problems are, the quantity of improperly reported assets could be tens of billions, or even hundreds of billions.

Banks are now closing their books for 2010, and will be filing their financial statements at the end of March. The impact of the mortgage documentation problems will grow as a result of the Massachusetts ruling. The banks will have to account for these problems, and make a variety of disclosures. The banks' auditors will likely advocate caution; the New York Attorney General's recent case against Ernst & Young over Lehman Brothers' accounting for quarter end repo transactions will surely loom large in their minds. If the banks understate their problems, they (and their auditors) could buy more fraud suits from other classes of investors or government agencies. Stay tuned. This crisis could make our times even more interesting.

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