Sunday, October 28, 2007

Dirty Little Secrets of Subprime

I was reading through various blogs today when I stumbled upon Paul Krugman’s summary of the Report and Recommendations by the Majority Staff of the Joint Economic Committee (the “Report”) by Senator Charles Schumer, Chairman, and Rep Carolyn B. Maloney, Vice Chair. You can find the Report here: Since I have been writing on this drama for the past few weeks, I decided to get the Report and take a look under the hood. I found quite a few oil leaks. Unfortunately I believe this report to be another expenditure of taxpayer funds by Mr. Schumer to pull the wool over the eyes of the public and protect his wealthy constituents on Wall Street. By diverting attention away from those who profited from this adventure the Report attempts to back door a taxpayer bailout of the financial industry. Here are some of my issues with the Report:

1. The Report is stunning in the questions it does not answer. One such question is who is responsible? Of course, that would be investment banks, Wall Street attorneys, accountants, rating agencies, and mortgage servicers who collectively made a market for these mortgages that, from history, they knew (or should have known) were junk. None of these players in the game of wealth redistribution are mentioned in the Report. Instead, the blame falls to the state chartered mortgage bankers and the mortgage brokers. This is like concluding that the reason we have made so little progress in Iraq is because of the soldiers’ ineptitude rather than the generals or the administration. It’s like concluding the drug problem lies with the small time pusher but the cartels have nothing to do with it. The mortgage bankers did exactly what Wall Street wanted them to do – sell loans to feed the securitization machine. To now blame the foot soldiers and state regulatory failures for this mess is a disgrace. I would like the report to address where all of those HUD-1 statements executed at all of these home mortgage closings ended up? Mr. Jackson, please?

2. Another failure of the Report is it never asks the question “who profited from this disaster?” According to the Report, there are approximately $1.5 trillion in outstanding subprime mortgages. Of those, between 50% and 80% were securitized depending on the year in question from 2001 through 2006. If we assume 70%, the total of these loans that were securitized would be $1.05 trillion. Now, I don’t know how much profit is in these securitizations, but I assume that between attorneys, accountants, rating agencies, sponsors, etc., there has to be around 3% coming off of the top (probably multiples if we include servicing fees). That would be (1,050,000,000,000 x .03 = $31,500,000,000) $31.5 billion. It’s party time! It disgusts me that none of this is in this Report. How can it include worthy recommendations when it ignores the facts? If my percentages are off, it’s only because these numbers have not been made available in the Report. This is not to say that the mortgage bankers did not also profit from these transactions. I have seen many profit handsomely from them. The problem is where does that profit come from? It trickles down from the profits up the food chain on securitizing these mortgages. There has been a massive redistribution of wealth and, based on the recommendations of the Report (see below), Senator Schumer believes the taxpayers should pay the tab.

3. The report fails to observe some of the most obvious conclusions that can be reached from the data it presents. Here is one example: according to the Report, “As can be seen in Figure 10, between 2001 and 2006 adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) as a share of total subprime loans originated increased from about 73 percent to more than 91 percent. The share of loans originated for borrowers unable to verify information about employment, income or other credit-related information (“low-documentation” or “no documentation ” loans) jumped from more than 28 percent to more than 50 percent.

“The share of ARM originations on which borrowers paid interest only, with nothing going to repay principal, increased from zero to more than 22 percent. Over this period the share of subprime ARMs that were originated as “hybrids” increased dramatically. The share of 2- and 3-year hybrid ARM’s accounted for more than 72 percent of all subprime ARM’s originated in 2005 (See Figure 12 in Appendix).”

At the same time, the Report discloses that these subprime ARM loans went to borrowers with, on average, lower FICO scores (624) than any other type of loan. Subprime fixed FICO scores were 636, near prime ARM 711, and near prime fixed 717. Why are the adjustable rate borrowers in these lower FICO scores? Because that’s how you get them to qualify for a loan, by basing their payment on the initial teaser rate or interest only payment. These were the loans being made toward the end of this debacle, and over 80% of them by dollar value were securitized in 2005 and 2006. All of this makes it painfully obvious that the mortgage machine was working its way down the food chain from qualified to unqualified borrowers, while all of the regulators did nothing but brag about how home ownership rates where going up and Wall Street collected fees. In my opinion, heads should roll. The Report does give this point lip service with the following “full” coverage of this topic:

“Because mortgage companies sell many of the loans they underwrite to the secondary market, they have an interest in underwriting loans that are desired by the secondary market investors.51 This observation has special weight because of developments in nonmortgage financial markets. In recent years, as hedge funds have proliferated and the market for structured financial products has expanded, there has been significant demand for highyield assets that can underlie collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and other financial derivatives. Subprime mortgages have, until recently, been considered terrific assets to include in CDO structures. Hence subprime lenders have had a strong incentive to underwrite high-yielding subprime mortgages, whether or not these loans were best interests of the borrowers.” Yup, that’s it. The fault lands at the feet of the subprime lenders and no further up the food chain. Lets not examine what accounted for the strong incentive lenders had to originate these mortgages.

4. The Report shows a clear relationship between the rate of subprime mortgages and the rise in overall housing prices, yet it never actually makes this connection. In other words, the $1.5 trillion artificial increase in housing demand from subprime borrowers resulted in rising prices that kept subprime default rates artificially low until lenders got far enough down the food chain. Then the house fell down. What device enabled this run-up in subprime and housing prices and now defaults (subprime went from 2.6% of outstanding mortgages in 2001 to 14.0% in 2Q 2007)? The CDO and securitization machine that was making money from it.

5. The Report ignores the role of the rating agencies in this mess. In order to make these loans, they had to be securitized because nobody wanted to hold them in their portfolio. Apparently it was well known that these loans were highly risky. Well known to everyone except the rating agencies who rated tranches too aggressively and are now in the process of downgrading them rapidly. This should come as no surprise. As the Report shows, subprime default rates have always been high with the exception of the period of time when home prices were appreciating at unsustainable levels. This is painfully obvious from the statistics presented in the Report. But the next logical question is how did the rating agencies get this so wrong? Did they actually assume that home prices would continue to appreciate at levels we have only seen in the past for a short period following WW II? Here is what the Report has to say about this:

“Since underwriting deteriorated from 2001 to 2005, and the accelerating housing price boom was giving subprime borrowers important help (see Part II), a cautious analyst might have questioned whether the improvements in subprime performance could be sustained. The financial intermediaries who expanded the supply of these loans were apparently not troubled by this issue. The reasons for their lack of curiosity may lie in the strong incentives they had for expanding the subprime market.”

Who are these “analysts” and what were their strong incentives to expand the subprime market? Other than the mortgage bankers supplying food for the CDO market we have no idea from this Report. So, it is some unidentified “analyst” who is to blame for this massive screw up. Not the CDO wiz kid quants or the rating agencies, but some “analyst”. Please stop insulting our intelligence. Regarding the rating agencies, these issues are not new, and they are now coming to the forefront. The Connecticut AG has issued subpoenas to get answers to questions that many scholars have been asking for a decade regarding rating agency independence and the pseudo regulatory role they play. If you are interested in this issue a good place to start would be with Frank Partnoy’s research paper HOW AND WHY CREDIT RATING AGENCIES ARE NOT LIKE OTHER GATEKEEPERS. This paper can be downloaded without charge from the Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection: You can also review my piece on the pseudo regulatory role, and the resulting house of cards, that rating agencies play in our banking system here:

6. Where is the SEC? One of the striking issues about this whole mess is that nobody seems to know exactly where all of these CDOs are. This gets us back to the SIVs and M-LEC that have been discussed at length in the media, and I will not re-hash all of my issues with that here. You can read my previous posts on that topic here: and here: It seems to me that there are some people who actually know the answer to that question, whereas most of us do not. Doesn’t this create asymmetry in the markets? Can’t those who are in the know be putting on positions right now to their advantage based on this information? Think now is a good time to be in the markets? This shoe will drop in the woods, and none will hear it.

I could go on, but I think I have made my point that this Report is biased, and I for one am again angry at this snow job that appears to me intended to deflect attention from where the responsibility (and the profits) lie. Of course that's just my opinion.

Now to the recommendations. Total losses to homeowners could be as high as $164 billion (based on the assumption that the inflated real estate values are the real values). Of course, the recommendations do not include any mention of those on Wall Street. Instead, the first thing we should do is “increase FHA’s ability to refinance by passing the Federal Administration’s (FHA) Modernization Act of 2007, which would increase FHA’s capacity and flexibility to insure subprime mortgages that can be refinanced.” In other words, we should push the problem to the taxpayers. Are you ready for the $1.5 trillion bailout? Here it comes! Next, we should expand the capabilities of the GSEs Fannie and Freddie to help subprime borrowers through refinancing. Wait, isn’t that the same as recommendation 1? Taxpayer bailout. There are other recommendations such as educating borrowers, amending the bankruptcy laws, and so on. The bottom line – and I must give credit to a Newsvine friend for this quote – privatize the profits, socialize the costs.

All in all this Report is, in my opinion, another expenditure of taxpayer funds by Mr. Schumer to pull the wool over the eyes of the public and protect his wealthy constituents on Wall Street. By diverting attention away from those who profited from this debacle the Report attempts to back door a taxpayer bailout of the financial industry. This is the same financial industry that benefits from favorable and unjustifiable tax preferences, and represents the largest share of the top 1% income earners in the country. Unfortunately there is nothing new here. For another glaring example see my piece on another Schumer sponsored report here: . Shell games at the highest levels of government.

Finally, there is a case in front of the Supreme Court right now that could have an impact on the ability of anyone to hold any third party responsible in this mess. The case, Stoneridge, deals with concepts of third party liability for investor harm. It is not exactly on point, but it is not far from it. Should the Court, as expected, rule in favor of no third party liability, good luck ever getting anyone responsible for this mortgage debacle to pay. You can get my take on Stoneridge here:

Looks like all the lose ends are getting tied up nicely.

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fha loans said...

i dont know why ppl werent offered FHA....they could've gotten 6-7% ...but ended up with a 8-9% 2yr adjustable. a lot of those lenders screw up this economy

Anonymous said...

If the government really wanted to know who owns all this CDO paper, they could ask DTCC or the other clearinghouses.

Palermo's Blog said...

For additional info you can take a look at Section 204 of pending legislation in the House that specifically limits liability for securitizers here:

Palermo's Blog said...

Sorry to comment on my own post again, but I just ran across a really good article from two weeks ago on this here:

Matt said...

What about the write down Merrill Lynch has taken that is in excess of 7 Billion Dollars and the fallout regarding the stepping down of their CEO? Is this not considered a monetary repercussion and corporate liability that effects major players on Wall Street?

Palermo's Blog said...

It is, but it is not enough and it does not help any of the people harmed by all of this. Check out this quote:
“Even Goldman may have lost money on GSAMP - but being Goldman, the firm has more than covered its losses by betting successfully that the price of junk mortgages would drop. Of course, Goldman knew a lot about this market: GSAMP was just one of 83 mortgage-backed issues totaling $44.5 billion that Goldman sold last year.”
From here:
So, while they were packaging these things up and selling them to investors, they were also betting they would decline in value? Doesn’t that raise issues? Who are the counter parties to those bets? Hope it wasn’t my pension fund!

I am not saying that Wall Street players intentionally went out and duped investors, although at times like this it can certainly seem so. What I am saying is that they should have known that the loans they were securitizing were not going to hold up. History tells us that, as does common sense. Rather than putting on the brakes, it looks like they hit the gas and now we have a substantial credit problem. Merrill investors are taking a hit for it, but in the overall scheme of things I think it is a small amount. By the way, The WSJ is reporting today that O’Neil is walking away with as much as $160 million. What kind of message is sent by that kind of “monetary repercussion”?

Thanks for the comment.

Palermo's Blog said...

Isn't anyone going to defend Senator Schumer?

Anonymous said...

Michael Z, Loan Orignator said...
Thanks for the post! I agree that the wrong people are targeted in the report..I am one of the loan originators that was just doing what we get paid for..finding a loan the buyer could qualify for. We did not make up the lending guidelines.. I never funded a option arm to my clients but am getting painted as somehow who caused this mess.
So now the reforms are going to be written by the banks, eliminate competition from the state bankers and brokers.. remove YSP which are designed to assist borrowers in obtaining loans such as Fed VA, Rural development, etc when they are short of funds to pay costs.. BUT the banks are still advertising the No-cost loans, and other deceptive products to the consumer...where are the regulators?
so the banks get what they want more market share, reduced competition from state licensed competition...and the big one.....
a waiver from any of the proposed reforms because the (OCC) Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is protecting the consumer. Am I the only one who is concerned this garbage will pass?

October 30, 2007 3:19 PM

Chui Tey said...

Right on point. The businesses are simply doing what they are out to do. Make money. It is not a business failure that led to the subprime crisis. It is a regulatory one.