So, subprime mortgage-backed securities. Here’s a schematic:
Banks packaged subprime mortgages into bonds and sold them to people.
The bonds were bad and the people lost money.
What’s the something? There are two main theories. Theory 1 says that everyone knew at some lizard-brain level that it was a bad idea to give lots of money to poor unemployed people with low credit scores to buy overpriced houses, but figured it would work out fine if house prices kept going up. This worked until it didn’t; when house prices went down, badness ensued.
Theory 2 says that, while mortgage originators and securitizers knew that they were giving mortgages to people who had no chance of paying them back, the buyers of those mortgages had no idea: they thought that the originators were holding them to rigorous underwriting standards, where “rigorous” is read to mean “other than requiring a job, or an income, or assets, or a credit score.” When that turned out to be false, badness ensued.
Theory 1 has the benefit of probably being right.1 Theory 2 is superior on every other metric. For one thing, it fits well with deep cultural desires to find villains for the subprime crisis, and punish them. For another, it better fits the explicit facts. No subprime offering document actually said “these guys are all just terrible reprobates and the only way you’ll get your money back is if they can find a greater fool to buy their overpriced house when their rate resets.” But there’s no shortage of internal emails that say – well:
In connection with the Bear Stearns Second Lien Trust 2007-1 (“BSSLT 2007-1”) securitization, for example, one Bear Stearns executive asked whether the securitization was a “going out of business sale” and expressed a desire to “close this dog.” In another internal email, the SACO 2006-8 securitization was referred to as a “SACK OF SHIT”2 and a “shit breather.”
There’s a thing called socially responsible investing where
(1) you invest other people’s money,
(3) but it’s okay because you’re doing it not to make them money but to save the whales, er, penguins, and they like penguins, so they keep paying your fees. This is a good racket as rackets go but it turns out that people mostly don’t like penguins as much as they like money so it is sort of a limited racket. The trick if you can manage it is to appeal to people who like penguins to give you other people’s money, because people typically like penguins more than they like other people having money. This can be great for you and also for penguins, and for the right value of “you” and “penguins” can be a diabolical way to achieve real social good, which is my favorite.
Two great recent stories in that vein. One is a proposal to use eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages and refloat them. The idea, schematically, is (1) seize property,* (2) sell it back to homeowner at fair value, and (3) lend money to the homeowner to pay for the house, which the municipality then uses to pay fair value to the mortgage lender whose collateral was seized in step (1). Any dope of a municipality could presumably get their act together to do (1) and (2), but the problem is (3) coming up with the money for new mortgages to pay fair value to the old mortgagee. You could see why oh I don’t know BANKS would not like this scheme – it will cost them in servicing rights and refinancing fees and second-lien writedowns** – and so the money has to come from non-banks. Some folks think they can find the money, for a small fee of course, and so are roadshowing the idea to municipalities. It seems to be popular in California, go figure.
August was kind of rough for Bank of America on the legal front, to the point that we once said in Write-Offs “Everybody who hadn’t yet sued BofA did today, or will soon.” But that turned out to be wrong! Or at least, it underestimated the continuing appeal of suing Bank of America, because now not only is everyone who is not Bank of America suing Bank of America, but so is Bank of America:
[I]n Florida’s Palm Beach County alone, Bank of America has sued itself for foreclosure 11 times since late March, according to foreclosure fraud activist Lynn Szymoniak, who forwarded one such foreclosure filing, dated March 29, 2012, to The Huffington Post. … In the March 29 filing, Bank of America is seeking to foreclose on a condominium and names the condo owner and Bank of America as defendants in the suit. The company is literally seeking damages from itself in order to foreclose on the condo owner.
Ha ha ha but why is Bank of America a delinquent condo owner? Because of course it’s not; it’s the second lien holder: Read more »
It’s always good fun to get upset about something of the form “X bet against Y,” and the financial markets offer a whole range of opportunities to do so. Everything is a bet against something, and if that something is sympathetic and/or you, you can go get enjoyably pissed at whoever is doing the betting. Today ProPublica reports on a nasty-sounding Freddie Mac bet against America and freedom and the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with no prepayment penalty:
Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-owned mortgage giant, has placed multibillion-dollar bets that pay off if homeowners stay trapped in expensive mortgages with interest rates well above current rates.
Freddie began increasing these bets dramatically in late 2010, the same time that the company was making it harder for homeowners to get out of such high-interest mortgages.
Now, a “bet that pays off if homeowners stay trapped in expensive mortgages with interest rates well above current rates” is called a … what’s the word? … oh, right. A “mortgage.” A feature of our life here on earth is that banks make money when people stay in their fixed-rate mortgages when rates go down, and lose money when people refinance those mortgages.*
Okay but in fairness those aren’t Freddie’s “bets,” not exactly. Their bets against not only the housing market but also specifically a couple named the Silversteins, who “live in an unfinished development of cul-de-sacs and yellow stucco houses about 20 miles north of Philadelphia, in a house decorated with Bonnie’s orchids and their Rose Bowl parade pin collection,” look like this: Read more »
If you like mortgages you should read this Fed white paper for Congress on the housing market though I sort of get the sense that Ben Bernanke’s heart isn’t in it. As he says, “Our goal is not to provide a detailed blueprint, but rather to outline issues and tradeoffs that policymakers might consider,” which is quite white-papery of him; the lack of enthusiasm for finding an actionable plan probably comes from the facts that (1) these issues are quite hard and (2) no one will do anything about it anyway because it’s Congress.
So the white paper does in fact mostly lay out tradeoffs that you can ponder quietly, like the one where nobody is lending (bad!) because nobody is confident that they can meet GSE underwriting standards (hmm, we want banks to not sell crap loans to Fannie and Freddie, right?). Or the suggestion, which has been kicked around for a while, to convert foreclosed homes into rentals, which on the one hand:
[Real estate owned] holders will likely get better pricing on these sales if the program is designed to be attractive to a wide variety of investors. Selling to third-party investors via competitive auction processes may also improve the loss recoveries.
It’s difficult to keep track of all the things that all the people are suing all the banks for regarding mortgages. A place to start is by remembering that banks stood in the middle of originating loans to people who didn’t pay them and selling them to people who are now sad that they didn’t get paid. So the flow of money was kind of Investor -> Bank -> Homeowner -> Incinerator. If you think of that flow of money, it makes sense that the people are are doing the most suing are the investors and GSEs who bought mortgages, and regulators who sort of kind of represent the investors, and so in fact there are a lot of big numbers sloshing around in pretty normal securities-fraud-y lawsuits of exactly that sort.
But there are also lawsuits, with quite large dollar numbers attached to them, that go the other way. In these, homeowners, and regulators who sort of kind of purport to speak on behalf of the homeowners, are suing the banks for really quite stonking amounts of money.
It’s analytically helpful for me to separate those suits into two further buckets: Read more »
Like many people, I like to believe that I prefer the government policies that I prefer because they’re a Good Thing for the world, not because they advance my self-interest. But as a relatively new homeowner, I break down a little on mortgages. Sure the mortgage interest deduction is a crazy and inefficient boondoggle, but it’s my crazy and inefficient boondoggle, and I don’t really want my apartment to lose (more) value if the deduction goes away.
Similarly, I’m pretty psyched about the plan that’s been kicking around, and that made it in vague form into the president’s jobs proposal, to allow people to refinance mortgages even if their houses are underwater or their income wouldn’t support the new payments. When I took out my mortgage I had a bit over one turn of leverage, as it were, which had my mortgage bankers congratulating me and asking if maybe I wanted to take a little more money just in case. Whereas now I make TXU look like a strong credit. Because um blogging pays less than banking you see. So I like the idea of being able to reduce my mortgage payment without actually having to try to convince a banker that it’s a good idea for me to keep this much debt. Even though I’m not entirely convinced that it’s good for the world.