Monday, October 18, 2010

Subprime Debacle Act 2 Eats Your Lunch and Dinner - Why 2011 Could Make 2008 Look Like A Cakewalk

Think the subprime debacle is over just because the MSM no longer mentions it daily? If being bored by (or ignorant of) a pressing economic matter were enough to make all of us stop worrying about it, we could all breathe a sigh of relief.

However, there is a security-threatening reason (pay close attention when reading here folks) why the foreclosure process (by Bank of America) was stopped recently (immediately after Obama pocket vetoed the bankster's bill that would have let them off the hook for the damages which they incurred - written and sponsored by the banking lobby!). Yep, everything's in question now - foreclosures and original mortgages - everywhere! Those bankers! Pretty clever guys, what?

If you think you aren't threatened by this systemwide cataclysm, don't bother reading the following very knowledgeable essay. And, oh yes, "Bon voyage!" (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)

There’s trouble, my friends, and it is does indeed involve pool(s), but not in the pool hall. The real monster is hidden in those pools of subprime debt that have not gone away. When I first began writing and speaking about the coming subprime disaster, it was in late 2007 and early 2008. The subject was being dismissed in most polite circles. “The subprime problem,” testified Ben Bernanke, “will be contained.”

My early take? It would be a disaster for investors. I admit I did not see in January that it would bring down Lehman and trigger the worst banking crisis in 80 years, less than 18 months later. But it was clear that it would not be “contained.” We had no idea.

I also said that it was going to create a monster legal battle down the road that would take years to develop. Well, in the fullness of time, those years have come nigh upon us. Today we briefly look at the housing market, then the mortgage foreclosure debacle, and then we go into the real problem lurking in the background.

It is The Subprime Debacle, Act 2. It is NOT the mortgage foreclosure issue, as serious as that is. I seriously doubt it will be contained, as well. Could the confluence of a bank credit crisis in the US and a sovereign debt banking crisis in Europe lead to another full-blown world banking crisis? The potential is there. This situation wants some serious attention.

. . . “Homeowners can only be foreclosed and evicted from their homes by the person or institution who actually has the loan paper…only the note-holder has legal standing to ask a court to foreclose and evict. Not the mortgage, the note, which is the actual IOU that people sign, promising to pay back the mortgage loan.“ Before mortgage-backed securities, most mortgage loans were issued by the local savings & loan. So the note usually didn’t go anywhere: it stayed in the offices of the S&L down the street. “But once mortgage loan securitization happened, things got sloppy…they got sloppy by the very nature of mortgage-backed securities.

“The whole purpose of MBSs was for different investors to have their different risk appetites satiated with different bonds. Some bond customers wanted super-safe bonds with low returns, some others wanted riskier bonds with correspondingly higher rates of return.

“Therefore, as everyone knows, the loans were ‘bundled’ into REMICs (Real-Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits, a special vehicle designed to hold the loans for tax purposes), and then “sliced & diced”…split up and put into tranches, according to their likelihood of default, their interest rates, and other characteristics.

“This slicing and dicing created ‘senior tranches,’ where the loans would likely be paid in full, if the past history of mortgage loan statistics was to be believed. And it also created ‘junior tranches,’ where the loans might well default, again according to past history and statistics. (A whole range of tranches was created, of course, but for the purposes of this discussion we can ignore all those countless other variations.)

“These various tranches were sold to different investors, according to their risk appetite. That’s why some of the MBS bonds were rated as safe as Treasury bonds, and others were rated by the ratings agencies as risky as junk bonds.

“But here’s the key issue: When an MBS was first created, all the mortgages were pristine…none had defaulted yet, because they were all brand-new loans. Statistically, some would default and some others would be paid back in full…but which ones specifically would default? No one knew, of course. If I toss a coin 1,000 times, statistically, 500 tosses the coin will land heads…but what will the result be of, say, the 723rd toss? No one knows.

“Same with mortgages.

“So in fact, it wasn’t that the riskier loans were in junior tranches and the safer ones were in senior tranches: rather, all the loans were in the REMIC, and if and when a mortgage in a given bundle of mortgages defaulted, the junior tranche holders would take the losses first, and the senior tranche holder last.

“But who were the owners of the junior-tranche bond and the senior-tranche bonds? Two different people. Therefore, the mortgage note was not actually signed over to the bond holder. In fact, it couldn’t be signed over. Because, again, since no one knew which mortgage would default first, it was impossible to assign a specific mortgage to a specific bond.

“Therefore, how to make sure the safe mortgage loan stayed with the safe MBS tranche, and the risky and/or defaulting mortgage went to the riskier tranche?

“Enter stage right the famed MERS…the Mortgage Electronic Registration System.

“MERS was the repository of these digitized mortgage notes that the banks originated from the actual mortgage loans signed by homebuyers. MERS was jointly owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (yes, those two again …I know, I know: like the chlamydia and the gonorrhea of the financial world…you cure ‘em, but they just keep coming back).

“The purpose of MERS was to help in the securitization process. Basically, MERS directed defaulting mortgages to the appropriate tranches of mortgage bonds. MERS was essentially where the digitized mortgage notes were sliced and diced and rearranged so as to create the mortgage-backed securities. Think of MERS as Dr. Frankenstein’s operating table, where the beast got put together.

“However, legally…and this is the important part…MERS didn’t hold any mortgage notes: the true owner of the mortgage notes should have been the REMICs.

“But the REMICs didn’t own the notes either, because of a fluke of the ratings agencies: the REMICs had to be “bankruptcy remote,” in order to get the precious ratings needed to peddle mortgage-backed Securities to institutional investors.

“So somewhere between the REMICs and MERS, the chain of title was broken.

“Now, what does ‘broken chain of title’ mean? Simple: when a homebuyer signs a mortgage, the key document is the note. As I said before, it’s the actual IOU. In order for the mortgage note to be sold or transferred to someone else (and therefore turned into a mortgage-backed security), this document has to be physically endorsed to the next person. All of these signatures on the note are called the ‘chain of title.’

“You can endorse the note as many times as you please…but you have to have a clear chain of title right on the actual note: I sold the note to Moe, who sold it to Larry, who sold it to Curly, and all our notarized signatures are actually, physically, on the note, one after the other.

“If for whatever reason any of these signatures is skipped, then the chain of title is said to be broken. Therefore, legally, the mortgage note is no longer valid. That is, the person who took out the mortgage loan to pay for the house no longer owes the loan, because he no longer knows whom to pay.

“To repeat: if the chain of title of the note is broken, then the borrower no longer owes any money on the loan.

Read that last sentence again, please. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

“You read it again? Good: Now you see the can of worms that’s opening up.

“The broken chain of title might not have been an issue if there hadn’t been an unusual number of foreclosures. Before the housing bubble collapse, the people who defaulted on their mortgages wouldn’t have bothered to check to see that the paperwork was in order.

“But as everyone knows, following the housing collapse of 2007-’10-and-counting, there has been a boatload of foreclosures…and foreclosures on a lot of people who weren’t sloppy bums who skipped out on their mortgage payments, but smart and cautious people who got squeezed by circumstances.

“These people started contesting their foreclosures and evictions, and so started looking into the chain-of-title issue, and that’s when the paperwork became important. So the chain of title became crucial and the botched paperwork became a nontrivial issue.

“Now, the banks had hired ‘foreclosure mills’law firms that specialized in foreclosures…in order to handle the massive volume of foreclosures and evictions that occurred because of the housing crisis. The foreclosure mills, as one would expect, were the first to spot the broken chain of titles.

“Well, what do you know, it turns out that these foreclosure mills might have faked and falsified documentation, so as to fraudulently repair the chain-of-title issue, thereby ‘proving’ that the banks had judicial standing to foreclose on delinquent mortgages. These foreclosure mills might have even forged the loan note itself…

“Wait, why am I hedging? The foreclosure mills did actually, deliberately, and categorically fake and falsify documents, in order to expedite these foreclosures and evictions. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, who has been all over this story, put up a price list for this ‘service’ from a company called DocX…yes, a price list for forged documents. Talk about your one-stop shopping!

“So in other words, a massive fraud was carried out, with the inevitable innocent bystanders getting caught up in the fraud: the guy who got foreclosed and evicted from his home in Florida, even though he didn’t actually have a mortgage, and in fact owned his house free – and clear.

The family that was foreclosed and evicted, even though they had a perfect mortgage payment record. Et cetera, depressing et cetera.

“Now, the reason this all came to light is not because too many people were getting screwed by the banks or the government or someone with some power saw what was going on and decided to put a stop to it…that would have been nice, to see a shining knight in armor, riding on a white horse.

“But that’s not how America works nowadays.“No, alarm bells started going off when the title insurance companies started to refuse to insure the titles.

“In every sale, a title insurance company insures that the title is free -and clear …that the prospective buyer is in fact buying a properly vetted house, with its title issues all in order. Title insurance companies stopped providing their service because…of course…they didn’t want to expose themselves to the risk that the chain of title had been broken, and that the bank had illegally foreclosed on the previous owner.

“That’s when things started getting interesting: that’s when the attorneys general of various states started snooping around and making noises (elections are coming up, after all).

“The fact that Ally Financial (formerly GMAC), JP Morgan Chase, and now Bank of America have suspended foreclosures signals that this is a serious problemobviously. Banks that size, with that much exposure to foreclosed properties, don’t suspend foreclosures just because they’re good corporate citizens who want to do the right thing, and who have all their paperwork in strict order…they’re halting their foreclosures for a reason.

“The move by the United States Congress last week, to sneak by the Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act? That was all the banking lobby. They wanted to shove down that law, so that their foreclosure mills’ forged and fraudulent documents would not be scrutinized by out-of-state judges. (The spineless cowards in the Senate carried out their master’s will by a voice vote…so that there would be no registry of who had voted for it, and therefore no accountability.)

“And President Obama’s pocket veto of the measure? He had to veto it…if he’d signed it, there would have been political hell to pay, plus it would have been challenged almost immediately, and likely overturned as unconstitutional in short order. (But he didn’t have the gumption to come right out and veto it…he pocket vetoed it.)

“As soon as the White House announced the pocket veto…the very next day!…Bank of America halted all foreclosures, nationwide.

“Why do you think that happened? Because the banks are in trouble…again. Over the same thing as last time…the damned mortgage-backed securities!

“The reason the banks are in the tank again is, if they’ve been foreclosing on people they didn’t have the legal right to foreclose on, then those people have the right to get their houses back. And the people who bought those foreclosed houses from the bank might not actually own the houses they paid for.

“And it won’t matter if a particular case…or even most cases…were on the up -and up: It won’t matter if most of the foreclosures and evictions were truly due to the homeowner failing to pay his mortgage. The fraud committed by the foreclosure mills casts enough doubt that, now, all foreclosures come into question. Not only that, all mortgages come into question.

People still haven’t figured out what all this means. But I’ll tell you: if enough mortgage-paying homeowners realize that they may be able to get out of their mortgage loans and keep their houses, scott-free? That’s basically a license to halt payments right now, thank you. That’s basically a license to tell the banks to take a hike.

“What are the banks going to do…try to foreclose and then evict you? Show me the paper, Mr. Banker, will be all you need to say.

“This is a major, major crisis. The Lehman bankruptcy could be a spring rain compared to this hurricane. And if this isn’t handled right…and handled right quick, in the next couple of weeks at the outside…this crisis could also spell the end of the mortgage business altogether. Of banking altogether. Hell, of civil society. What do you think happens in a country when the citizens realize they don’t need to pay their debts?”

. . . We CANNOT allow this debacle to continue. It will bring the system down. Who will want to buy a mortgage that is in a securitized package with no clear title? Who will get title insurance? Some judge somewhere is going to make a ruling that is going to petrify every title company, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

Let’s be very clear. If we cannot securitize mortgages, there is no mortgage market. We cannot go back to where lenders warehoused the notes. It would take a decade to build that infrastructure. In the meantime, housing prices are devastated. Whatever wealth effect remains from housing gets worse, and the economy rolls over.

. . . Some think we need some regulatory fixes. Some think we will need a legislative cure. But if we need to, there need be no finger pointing, no partisan BS. This needs to get solved.

Someone took out a mortgage. Some entity thinks they are owed money. Fix the damn paper trail so that happens, whether in a legal if time-consuming manner, in a regulatory fix, or with legislation.

Now, that is not to say the people who did this stuff did not commit felonies and such. We can sort that out over time. The longer we wait the worse it will get. Fix the problem and then go round up the bad guys. There are bigger issues in play here.

. . . I get the fraud being done here. I am regulated by FINRA, the NFA, various states, the British FSA, and ultimately the SEC. If I did something in my business like the stuff described above, someone would come in and justifiably shut me down, fine me, and ban me from the securities business. Oh, wait. These guys ARE regulated by the above groups.

Finally on this topic, I shake my head when I think that the FDIC is now running several of the banks (think IndyMac) that are part of this foreclosure crisis. These are the guys who are supposed to be preventing something like this. Again, where are the adults?

. . . A quick preview.

All those subprime and Alt-A mortgages written in the middle of the last decade? They were packaged and sold in securities. They have had huge losses. But those securities had representations and warranties about what was in them. And guess what, the investment banks may have stretched credibility about those warranties. There is the real probability that the investment banks that sold them are going to have to buy them back. We are talking the potential for multiple hundreds of billions of dollars in losses that will have to be eaten by the large investment banks.

He's not kidding - hey, this is John Mauldin talking and he doesn't even have a modern sense of humor. Please read the whole essay for the incredible, country-wrecking story.

Christopher Walen is no better a source of comfort. He is, however, a terrific source of information on what lies ahead. (Emphasis marks added - Ed.)

Christopher Whalen makes a remarkably convincing case for why we’ve simply kicked the can down the road and why the banks could be in for a repeat of their 2008 nightmares in 2011. If Mr. Whalen is right the banking sector is in for a whole new round of government intervention, takeovers, likely nationalizations and general disaster:

The U.S. banking industry is entering a new period of crisis where operating costs are rising dramatically due to foreclosures and defaults. We are less than ¼ of the way through the foreclosure process. Laurie Goodman of Amherst Securities predicts that 1 in 5 mortgages could go into foreclosure without radical action.

Rising operating costs in banks will be more significant than in past recessions and could force the U.S. government to restructure some large lenders as expenses overwhelm revenue. BAC, JPM, GMAC foreclosure moratoriums only the start of the crisis that threatens the financial foundations of the entire U.S. political economy.

The largest U.S. banks remain insolvent and must continue to shrink. Failure by the Obama Administration to restructure the largest banks during 2007‐2009 period only means that this process is going to occur over next three to five years –whether we like it or not. The issue is recognizing existing losses ‐‐ not if a loss occurred.

Impending operational collapse of some of the largest U.S. banks will serve as the catalyst for re‐creation of RFC‐type liquidation vehicle(s) to handle the operational task of finally deflating the subprime bubble. End of the liquidation cycle of the deflating bubble will arrive in another four to five years. Fast forward to the 1:07 minute mark where Mr. Whalen begins (video here).

The comments on this are very good.

gaius marius:

Agreed TPC. At minimum we’re looking at running bailouts to keep the majors and servicers out of the insolvent-and-negative-cash-flow lethality. As one of the other presenters said, 2008 was the anticipation of a huge amount of losses, whereas this will be the actual losses. And I might add that the scale of the loss has only grown in the intervening time.

. . . he may have been referring to Keene’s presentation back in September, entitled “Why the Crisis is Not Over.” Go here for his PPT presentation.

David Einhorn's perspective is always useful at times like this. From Naked Capitalism:

Field of Schemes: David Einhorn’s Latest Short

Einhorn is the famous Lehman short of 2008; he got a lot of flak from Clueless Charlie Gasparino for that. I seem to remember our own Lehman bear, Yves, getting snarled at by Charlie G somewhere along the line, too. But of course, Einhorn, via his vehicle "Greenlight Capital," had it right; as did Yves (something that those decrying the “Yellow Journalism” of recent NC posts on “foreclosuregate” would do well to consider).

Well here, anyway, is Einhorn’s latest short: the Florida real estate developer, St Joe. Only capitalized at $2Bn (umm, a bit less since Einhorn’s short hit the newswires yesterday), so not quite in the Lehman league of portentousness, but still a nice example of the short seller’s nose for a dubious proposition.

St Joe seems to have made a lot of money selling off the good bits of its land bank (to other speculators, one imagines) during the Florida RE Boom; and rather less money (meaning, a red P&L) doing its own developments. The net result of all that, now we’re in the bust, is a fair cash pile, a decent burn rate, half a million acres of no-so-wonderful bits of Florida, and management stasis. So it appears to be the sort of boom-time survivor that will just gently implode when the money runs out. This is how an RE developer would look in the bust so St Joe is, if you like, a sign of the times.

There’s 5 Megs of presentation here if you like looking through a very carefully worked out short thesis (with some nice pictures and maps).

It is always striking how well-organized and data rich these short theses tend to be (if you are following John Hempton and his dippy Chinese travel agent, you know another example); I suppose if you are going to dissent from the near-mandatory happy talk, you had better be at your most rigorous.

Ha Ha! Happy talk? Bring it on! Speaking of happy talk and banksters, how about those foreign policy makers? Paul Krugman has zero happy talk about them today.

And he knows of whom he speaks (emphasis marks added - Ed.)

Last month a Chinese trawler operating in Japanese-controlled waters collided with two vessels of Japan’s Coast Guard. Japan detained the trawler’s captain; China responded by cutting off Japan’s access to crucial raw materials.

And there was nowhere else to turn: China accounts for 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths, minerals that play an essential role in many high-technology products, including military equipment. Sure enough, Japan soon let the captain go.

I don’t know about you, but I find this story deeply disturbing, both for what it says about China and what it says about us. On one side, the affair highlights the fecklessness of U.S. policy makers, who did nothing while an unreliable regime acquired a stranglehold on key materials. On the other side, the incident shows a Chinese government that is dangerously trigger-happy, willing to wage economic warfare on the slightest provocation.

Some background: The rare earths are elements whose unique properties play a crucial role in applications ranging from hybrid motors to fiber optics. Until the mid-1980s the United States dominated production, but then China moved in.

“There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China,” declared Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s economic transformation, in 1992. Indeed, China has about a third of the world’s rare earth deposits. This relative abundance, combined with low extraction and processing costs — reflecting both low wages and weak environmental standards — allowed China’s producers to undercut the U.S. industry.

You really have to wonder why nobody raised an alarm while this was happening, if only on national security grounds. But policy makers simply stood by as the U.S. rare earth industry shut down. In at least one case, in 2003 — a time when, if you believed the Bush administration, considerations of national security governed every aspect of U.S. policy — the Chinese literally packed up all the equipment in a U.S. production facility and shipped it to China.

The result was a monopoly position exceeding the wildest dreams of Middle Eastern oil-fueled tyrants. And even before the trawler incident, China showed itself willing to exploit that monopoly to the fullest. The United Steelworkers recently filed a complaint against Chinese trade practices, stepping in where U.S. businesses fear to tread because they fear Chinese retaliation. The union put China’s imposition of export restrictions and taxes on rare earths — restrictions that give Chinese production in a number of industries an important competitive advantage — at the top of the list.

. . . Major economic powers, realizing that they have an important stake in the international system, are normally very hesitant about resorting to economic warfare, even in the face of severe provocation — witness the way U.S. policy makers have agonized and temporized over what to do about China’s grossly protectionist exchange-rate policy.

China, however, showed no hesitation at all about using its trade muscle to get its way in a political dispute, in clear — if denied — violation of international trade law.

Couple the rare earth story with China’s behavior on other fronts — the state subsidies that help firms gain key contracts, the pressure on foreign companies to move production to China and, above all, that exchange-rate policy — and what you have is a portrait of a rogue economic superpower, unwilling to play by the rules. And the question is what the rest of us are going to do about it.

Read on little dreamer, read on. Suzan ________________


rjs said...

hi suzan...

you know ive been following this mortgage mess since it broke on yves's blog 9/20...she'd been hinting at something like this all year

the way i see our crisis now is we have two issues here; the first are the people issues: clear title to home ownership, & the banks right to foreclose if the title is screwed up...

the other is over $7 trillion in mortgage backed securities, which could be technically unfunded, with all the related systemic troubles....

right now mortgage laws are not under federal jurisdiction, and the attorney generals are protecting their turf...

and the RMBS trusts are under NY law...

gonna be a complicated bailout, and you know who pays...

Suzan said...

Another reason I think many want to exit the country.


Thanks, sweetie.

Always enjoy your comments and blogging.


Ahab said...

The media certainly isn't talking about this, and you're correct in that the silence has created a false sense of security.

I really wish I'd taken an economics course or two back in college, so I'd be better informed about the situation now.