Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Foreclosure Machine

(NYT) Nobody wins when a home enters foreclosure — neither the borrower, who is evicted, nor the lender, who takes a loss when the home is resold. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.

The reality is very different. Behind the scenes in these dramas, a small army of law firms and default servicing companies, who represent mortgage lenders, have been raking in mounting profits. These little-known firms assess legal fees and a host of other charges, calculate what the borrowers owe and draw up the documents required to remove them from their homes.

As the subprime mortgage crisis has spread, the volume of the business has soared, and firms that handle loan defaults have been the primary beneficiaries. Law firms, paid by the number of motions filed in foreclosure cases, have sometimes issued a flurry of claims without regard for the requirements of bankruptcy law, several judges say.

Much as Wall Street’s mortgage securitization machinery helped to fuel questionable lending across the United States, default, or foreclosure, servicing operations have been compounding the woes of troubled borrowers. Court documents say that some of the largest firms in the industry have repeatedly submitted erroneous affidavits when moving to seize homes and levied improper fees that make it harder for homeowners to get back on track with payments. Consumer lawyers call these operations “foreclosure mills.”

“They get paid by the volume and speed with which they process these foreclosures,” said Mal Maynard, director of the Financial Protection Law Center, a nonprofit firm in Wilmington, N.C.

John and Robin Atchley of Waleska, Ga., have experienced dubious foreclosure practices at first hand. Twice during a four-month period in 2006, the Atchleys were almost forced from their home when Countrywide Home Loans, part of Countrywide Financial, and the law firm representing it said they were delinquent on their mortgage. Countrywide’s lawyers withdrew their motions to seize the Atchleys’ home only after the couple proved them wrong in court.

The possibility that some lenders and their representatives are running roughshod over borrowers is of increasing concern to bankruptcy judges overseeing Chapter 13 cases across the country. The United States Trustee Program, a unit of the Justice Department that oversees the integrity of the nation’s bankruptcy courts, is bringing cases against lenders that it says are abusing the bankruptcy system.

Joel B. Rosenthal, a United States bankruptcy judge in the Western District of Massachusetts, wrote in a case last year involving Wells Fargo Bank that rising foreclosures were resulting in greater numbers of lenders that “in their rush to foreclose, haphazardly fail to comply with even the most basic legal requirements of the bankruptcy system.”

Law firms and default servicing operations that process large numbers of cases have made it harder for borrowers to design repayment plans, or workouts, consumer lawyers say. “As I talk to people around the country, they all unanimously state that the foreclosure mills are impediments to loan workouts,” Mr. Maynard said.

LAST month, almost 225,000 properties in the United States were in some stage of foreclosure, up nearly 60 percent from the period a year earlier, according to RealtyTrac, an online foreclosure research firm and marketplace.

These proceedings generate considerable revenue for the firms involved: eviction and appraisal charges, late fees, title search costs, recording fees, certified mailing costs, document retrieval fees, and legal fees. The borrower, already in financial distress, is billed for these often burdensome costs. While much of the revenue goes to the law firms hired by lenders, some is kept by the servicers of the loans.

Fidelity National Default Solutions, a unit of Fidelity National Information Services of Jacksonville, Fla., is one of the biggest foreclosure service companies. It assists 19 of the top 25 residential mortgage servicers and 14 of the top 25 subprime loan servicers.

Citing “accelerating demand” for foreclosure services last year, Fidelity generated operating income of $443 million in its lender processing unit, a 13.3 percent increase over 2006. By contrast, the increase from 2005 to 2006 was just 1 percent. The firm is not associated with Fidelity Investments.

Law firms representing lenders are also big beneficiaries of the foreclosure surge. These include Barrett Burke Wilson Castle Daffin & Frappier, a 38-lawyer firm in Houston; McCalla, Raymer, Padrick, Cobb, Nichols & Clark, a 37-member firm in Atlanta that is a designated counsel to Fannie Mae; and the Shapiro Attorneys Network, a nationwide group of 24 firms.

While these private firms do not disclose their revenues, Wesley W. Steen, chief bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of Texas, recently estimated that Barrett Burke generated between $9.7 million and $11.6 million a year in its practice. Another judge estimated last year that the firm generated $125,000 every two weeks — or $3.3 million a year — filing motions that start the process of seizing borrowers’ homes.

Court records from 2007 indicate that McCalla, Raymer generated $10.4 million a year on its work for Countrywide alone. In 2005, some McCalla, Raymer employees left the firm and created MR Default Services, an entity that provides foreclosure services; it is now called Prommis Solutions.

For years, consumer lawyers say, bankruptcy courts routinely approved these firms’ claims and fees. Now, as the foreclosure tsunami threatens millions of families, the firms’ practices are coming under scrutiny.

And none too soon, consumer lawyers say, because most foreclosures are uncontested by borrowers, who generally rely on what the lender or its representative says is owed, including hefty fees assessed during the foreclosure process. In Georgia, for example, a borrower can watch his home go up for auction on the courthouse steps after just 40 days in foreclosure, leaving relatively little chance to question fees that his lender has levied.

A recent analysis of 1,733 foreclosures across the country by Katherine M. Porter, associate professor of law at the University of Iowa, showed that questionable fees were added to borrowers’ bills in almost half the loans.

Specific cases inching through the courts support the notion that figures supplied by lenders are often incorrect. Lawyers representing clients who have filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the program intended to help them keep their homes, say it is especially distressing when these numbers are used to evict borrowers.

“If the debtor wants accurate information in a bankruptcy case on her mortgage, she has got to work hard to find that out,” said Howard D. Rothbloom, a lawyer in Marietta, Ga., who represents borrowers. That work, usually done by a lawyer, is costly.

Mr. Rothbloom represents the Atchleys, who almost lost their home in early 2006 when legal representatives of their loan servicer, Countrywide, incorrectly told the court that the Atchleys were 60 days delinquent in Chapter 13 plan payments two times over four months. Borrowers can lose their homes if they fail to make such payments.

After the Atchleys supplied proof that they had made their payments on both occasions, Countrywide withdrew its motions to begin foreclosure. But the company also levied $2,793 in fees on the Atchleys’ loan that it did not explain, court documents said. “Every paycheck went to what they said we owed,” Robin Atchley said. “And every statement we got, the payoff was $179,000 and it never went down. I really think they took advantage of us.”

The Atchleys, who have four children, sold the house and now rent. Mrs. Atchley said they lost more than $23,000 in equity in the home because of fees levied by Countrywide.

The United States Trustee sued Countrywide last month in the Atchley case, saying its pattern of conduct was an abuse of the bankruptcy system. Countrywide said that it could not comment on pending litigation and that privacy concerns prevented it from discussing specific borrowers.

A generation ago, home foreclosures were a local business, lawyers say. If a borrower got into trouble, the lender who made the loan was often a nearby bank that held on to the mortgage. That bank would hire a local lawyer to try to work with the borrower; foreclosure proceedings were a last resort.

Now foreclosures are farmed out to third-party processors who hire local counsel to litigate. Lenders negotiate flat-fee arrangements to try to keep legal bills down.

AN unfortunate result, according to several judges, is a drive to increase revenue by filing more motions. Jeff Bohm, a bankruptcy judge in Texas who oversaw a case between William Allen Parsley, a borrower in Willis, Tex., and legal representatives for Countrywide, said the flat-fee structure “has fostered a corrosive ‘assembly line’ culture of practicing law.” Both McCalla, Raymer and Barrett Burke represented Countrywide in the matter.

Gee Aldridge, managing partner at McCalla, Raymer, called the Parsley case unique. “It is the goal of every single one of my clients to do whatever they can do to keep borrowers in their homes,” he said. Officials at Barrett Burke did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In a statement, Countrywide said it recognized the importance of the efficient functioning of the bankruptcy system. It said that servicing loans for borrowers in bankruptcy was complex, but that it had improved its procedures, hired new employees and was “aggressively exploring additional technology solutions to ensure that we are servicing loans in a manner consistent with applicable guidelines and policies.”

The September 2006 issue of The Summit, an in-house promotional publication of Fidelity National Foreclosure Solutions, another unit of Fidelity, trumpeted the efficiency of its 18-member “document execution team.” Set up “like a production line,” the publication said, the team executes 1,000 documents a day, on average.

OTHER judges are cracking down on some foreclosure practices. In 2006, Morris Stern, the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing a matter involving Jenny Rivera, a borrower in Lodi, N.J., issued a $125,000 sanction against the Shapiro & Diaz firm, which is a part of the Shapiro Attorneys Network. The judge found that Shapiro & Diaz had filed 250 motions seeking permission to seize homes using pre-signed certifications of default executed by an employee who had not worked at the firm for more than a year.

In testimony before the judge, a Shapiro & Diaz employee said that the firm used the pre-signed documents beginning in 2000 and that they were attached to “95 percent” of the firm’s motions seeking permission to seize a borrower’s home. Individuals making such filings are supposed to attest to their accuracy. Judge Stern called Shapiro & Diaz’s use of these documents “the blithe implementation of a renegade practice.”

Nelson Diaz, a partner at the firm, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Butler & Hosch, a law firm in Orlando, Fla., that is employed by Fannie Mae, has also been the subject of penalties. Last year, a judge sanctioned the firm $33,500 for filing 67 faulty motions to remove borrowers from their homes. A spokesman for the firm declined to comment.

Barrett Burke in Texas has come under intense scrutiny by bankruptcy judges. Overseeing a case last year involving James Patrick Allen, a homeowner in Victoria, Tex., Judge Steen examined the firm’s conduct in eight other foreclosure cases and found problems in all of them. In five of the matters, documents show, the firm used inaccurate information about defaults or failed to attach proper documentation when it moved to seize borrowers’ homes. Judge Steen imposed $75,000 in sanctions against Barrett Burke for a pattern of errors in the Allen case.

A former Barrett Burke lawyer, who requested anonymity to avoid possible retaliation from the firm, said, “They’re trying to find a fine line between providing efficient, less costly service to the mortgage companies” and not harming the borrower.

Both he and another former lawyer at the firm said Barrett Burke relied heavily on paralegals and other nonlawyer employees in its foreclosure and bankruptcy practices. For example, they said, paralegals prepared documents to be filed in bankruptcy court, demanding that the court authorize foreclosure on a borrower’s home. Lawyers were supposed to review the documents before they were filed. Both former Barrett lawyers said that with at least 1,000 filings a month, it was hard to keep up with the volume.

This factory-line approach to litigation was one reason he decided to leave the firm, the first lawyer said. “I had questions,” he added, “about whether doing things efficiently was worth whatever the cost was to the consumer.”

James R. and Tracy A. Edwards, who are now living in New Mexico, say they have had problems with questionable fees charged by Countrywide and actions by Barrett Burke. In one month in 2002, when the couple lived in Houston, Countrywide Home Loans withdrew three monthly mortgage payments from their bank account, Mrs. Edwards said, leaving them unable to pay other bills. The family filed for bankruptcy to try to keep their home, cars and other assets.

Filings in the bankruptcy case of the Edwards family show that on at least three occasions, Countrywide’s lawyers at Barrett Burke filed motions contending that the borrowers had fallen behind. The firm subsequently withdrew the motions.

“They kept saying we owed tons and tons of fees on the house,” Mrs. Edwards said. Tired of this battle, the family gave up the Houston house and moved to one in Rio Rancho, N.M., that they had previously rented out.

Countrywide tried to foreclose on that house, too, contending that Mr. and Mrs. Edwards were behind in their payments. Again, Mrs. Edwards said, the culprit was a raft of fees that Countrywide had never told them about — and that were related to their Texas home. Mrs. Edwards says that she and her husband plan to sue Countrywide to block foreclosure on their New Mexico home.

Pamela L. Stewart, president of the Houston Association of Debtor Attorneys, said she has become skeptical of lenders’ claims of fees owed. “I want to see documents that back up where these numbers are coming from,” Ms. Stewart said. “To me, they’re pulled out of the air.”

An inaccurate mortgage payment history supplied by Ameriquest, a mortgage lender that is now defunct, was central to a case last year in federal bankruptcy court in Massachusetts. “Ameriquest is simply unable or unwilling to conform its accounting practices to what is required under the bankruptcy code,” Judge Rosenthal wrote. He awarded the borrower $250,000 in emotional-distress damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.

Fidelity National Information Services has also been sued. A complaint filed on behalf of Ernest and Mattie Harris in federal bankruptcy court in Houston contends that Fidelity receives kickbacks from the lawyers it works with on foreclosure matters.

The case shines some light on the complex relationships between lenders and default servicers and the law firms that represent them. The Harrises’ loan servicer is Saxon Mortgage Services, a Morgan Stanley unit, which signed an agreement with Fidelity National Foreclosure Solutions. Under it, Fidelity was to provide foreclosure and bankruptcy services on loans serviced by Saxon, as well as to manage lawyers acting on Saxon’s behalf. The agreement also specified that Saxon would pay the fees of the lawyers managed by Fidelity.

But Fidelity also struck a second agreement, with an outside law firm, Mann & Stevens in Houston, which spelled out the fees Fidelity was to be paid each time the law firm made filings in a case. Mann & Stevens, which did respond to phone calls, represented Saxon in the Harrises’ bankruptcy proceedings.

According to the complaint, Mann & Stevens billed Saxon $200 for filing an objection to the borrowers’ plan to emerge from bankruptcy. Saxon paid the $200 fee, then charged that amount to the Harrises, according to the complaint. But Mann & Stevens kept only $150, paying the remaining $50 to Fidelity, the complaint said.

This arrangement constitutes improper fee-sharing, the Harrises argued. Texas rules of professional conduct bar fee-sharing between lawyers and nonlawyers because that could motivate them to raise prices — and the Harrises argue that this is why the law firm charged $200 instead of $150. And under these rules, sharing fees with someone who is not a lawyer creates a risk that the financial relationship could affect the judgment of the lawyer, whose duty is to the client. Few exceptions are permitted — like sharing court-awarded fees with a nonprofit organization or keeping a retirement plan for nonlawyer employees of a law firm.

“If it’s fee-sharing, and if it doesn’t fall into those categories, it sounds wrong,” said Michael S. Frisch, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University. Greg Whitworth, president of loan portfolio solutions at Fidelity, defended the arrangement, saying it was not unusual for a company to have an intermediary manage outside law firms on its behalf.

The Harrises contend that the bankruptcy-related fees charged by the law firms managed by Fidelity “are inflated by 25 to 50 percent.” The agreement between Fidelity and the law firm is also hidden, according to their complaint, so a presiding judge sees only the lender and the law firm, not the middleman.

Fidelity said the money it received from the law firm was not a kickback, but payments for services, just as a law firm would pay a copying service to duplicate documents. In response to the complaint, Fidelity asserted in a court filing that the Harrises’ claims were “nothing more than scandalous, hollow rhetoric.”

But the Fidelity fee schedule shows a charge for each action taken by the law firm, not a fee per page or kilobyte. And Fidelity’s contract appears to indemnify Saxon if the arrangement between Fidelity and its law firm runs afoul of conduct rules.

Mr. Whitworth of Fidelity said that the arrangement with Mann & Stevens did not constitute fee sharing, because Fidelity was to be paid by that law firm even if the law firm itself was not paid.

He also said that by helping a servicer manage dozens or even hundreds of law firms, Fidelity lowered the cost of foreclosure or bankruptcy proceedings, to the benefit of the law firm, the servicer and the borrower. “Both parties want us to be in the middle here,” Mr. Whitworth said, referring to law firms and mortgage servicing companies.

THE Fidelity contract attached to the complaint also hints at the money each motion generates. Foreclosures earn lawyers fees of $500 or more under the contract; evictions generate about $300. Those fees aren’t enormous if they require a substantial amount of time. But a few thousand such motions a month, executed by lawyers’ employees, translates into many hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to the law firm — and the lower the firm’s costs, the greater the profits.

“Congress needs to enact a national foreclosure bill that sets a uniform procedure in every state that provides adequate notice, due process and transparency about fees and charges,” said O. Max Gardner III, a consumer lawyer in Shelby, N.C. “A lot of this stuff is such a maze of numbers and complex organizational structure most lawyers can’t get through it. For the average consumer, it is mission impossible.”

Alan Blinder on How to Cast a Mortgage Lifeline

(NYT) financial markets are downright scary. And it seems unlikely that we can extricate ourselves from the current series of rolling financial crises without improving the situation in three related markets: those for houses, mortgages and securities based on mortgages.

In a previous column for Sunday Business, I advocated one possible approach: creating a modern version of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HOLC, the Depression-era entity that bought up old mortgages and issued new, more affordable ones in their stead. That idea, which hardly originated with me, stirred huge interest in both financial and political circles. (You should see my in-box.)

But this is one of those cases where the devil truly is in the details. How would it work in practice? Let’s concentrate on six major design issues:

STRUCTURE The original HOLC bought mortgages outright. But Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, the chairmen of the two banking committees of Congress, are now cooperating on a different way to skin the same cat.

Their approach would use a beefed-up Federal Housing Administration to guarantee new mortgages — issued, say, by banks — instead of buying up old ones. The effects would be much the same: old, unaffordable mortgages would be replaced by new, affordable ones; and the government would then assume the risk of default. But in the Frank-Dodd proposal, the federal government would be a big insurer rather than a big bank. Because the approach actually has a chance of becoming law, let’s adopt its structure.

BAILOUTS The Frank-Dodd plan for a Super F.H.A. is intended to make a bad situation better. But it must not be too generous in shielding people and businesses from the consequences of their own bad decisions — both for economic reasons (to minimize moral hazard) and for political reasons (to gain voter support).

So, what to do?

In the Frank-Dodd approach, existing mortgages would be bought below face value, forcing investors to, as they say in the trade, “take a haircut.” But homeowners who get nice, new mortgages to replace their nasty old ones should also be made to pay for the privilege. If not, the Super F.H.A. would be flooded with applicants. So the proposal would make homeowners relinquish part of any price appreciation on their houses for as long as their Super F.H.A. mortgages remain in effect.

Good idea. But I’d go further, by also making beneficiaries of the plan forfeit the right to take out second mortgages or home equity loans.

LEGAL SAFE HARBOR The Super F.H.A. would have to deal with legal complexities that no one dreamed of in the 1930s. Back then, banks held mortgages in their loan portfolios — as some still do today. But most mortgages these days are bundled into pools, turned into marketable securities, and then sold to investors all over the world. Companies called “mortgage servicers” do the bookkeeping, collect the monthly payments from homeowners and forward the funds to the mortgage owners.

To buy selected mortgages out of these pools, the Super F.H.A. must clear a legal hurdle. Servicers are petrified of lawsuits if they sell individual mortgages — which are, after all, owned by other people — “at a loss.” So, to unfreeze the market, Congress must pass legislation shielding servicers from legal liability when (as now) market conditions depress prices.

Providing such legal clarity is an urgent priority for Congress whether or not it passes a proposal like Frank-Dodd.

SETTING PRICES The HOLC bought pre-existing mortgages at a discount. The Super F.H.A. would use government guarantees to induce private businesses to do so. In either case, we need prices for the old mortgages.

Conceptually, the answer is simple: Haircuts should reflect current market values, which are well below face values. But there is a problem: With the resale market for mortgages virtually shut down, there are hardly any market prices.

The draft legislation is vague on this point, perhaps necessarily so. My suggestion is that the Super F.H.A. categorize the mortgages it might refinance into, say, “high,” “medium” and “low” qualities and, based on its best guesses of fair market value, post initial buying prices for each type.

Then it should adjust those prices according to whether mortgage owners rush in to sell (meaning that the prices were set too high) or stay away (meaning that the prices were set too low). Thus can the government synthesize a market until a real one re-emerges.

SUNSET Emergency measures must not outlast emergencies. So Mr. Frank and Mr. Dodd wisely propose that Super F.H.A. mortgages be packaged, securitized and sold back into the market as soon as conditions permit. The legislation will also end the granting of Super F.H.A. mortgages after a few years.

ELIGIBILITY AND SCALE How large should the mop-up operation be? Mr. Frank and Mr. Dodd are thinking about one million to two million mortgages, but they understand that a larger number might be necessary to stem the downward spiral.

Clearly, we would limit Super F.H.A. to refinancing primary residences — no second homes or houses bought “on spec,” please. There should also be upper limits on both family income and house value — no McMansions. Beyond that, the Super F.H.A. would have to develop sensible criteria to screen out applicants who can afford their current mortgages without any help and those who cannot afford even new, less onerous mortgages.

The urgency of creating something like the HOLC or a Super F.H.A. has grown, not shrunk, since I wrote my previous column. Credit markets remain traumatized despite aggressive rate-cutting by the Federal Reserve. In dramatic actions just two weeks ago, the Fed arranged for the orderly burial of Bear Stearns and started lending money directly to securities firms. But even those bold steps calmed the waters only briefly.

Now we have the Frank-Dodd proposal, which, while not a panacea, offers a smart approach to a knotty set of problems — an approach that should breathe some life into the housing market, the mortgage market and the related securities markets. Their design is not flawless. But do you know of any perfect solutions? It deserves our support.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bloomberg article pronounces bogus hope for subprime mortgages

(Naked Capitalism) An article by John Berry at Bloomberg, "Fed Actions Defuse Subprime ARM Rate Reset Bomb," is extraordinarily misleading, claiming that a Fed paper based on a single pool of MBS issued by New Century in 2006 shows that subprimes will work out much better than conventional wisdom says.

Let' s start with Berry:
Many analysts and public officials have said that foreclosures of subprime adjustable-rate mortgages would soar this year as owners' monthly payments jumped when interest rates reset to a higher level.

Not only is that unlikely to happen, this year's resets of earlier vintages of subprime mortgages may even reduce some payments that increased in 2007.

The reason? The index to which many ARMs are tied is the six-month London inter-bank offered rate, or Libor, and that rate has fallen from more than 5.3 percent last fall to about half that level....

Unfortunately, most of the defaults and foreclosures that have wreaked havoc in financial markets haven't been due to resets so far. Many borrowers simply bought a house or condo they couldn't afford unless bailed out by rising prices, and lower rates alone won't help them much.

Still, the big drop in Libor means there likely will be many fewer foreclosures than there would have been....

A new report, ``Understanding the Securitization of Subprime Mortgage Credit,'' by economists Adam B. Ashcraft and Til Schuermann of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, published this month, provides a wealth of detail about subprime mortgages. Much of its information is based on a pool of such mortgage-backed securities issued by New Century Financial in June 2006.

All but 12 percent of the loans in the pool were ARMs, either the so-called 2/28 or 3/27 variety. That is, they carried a fixed-initial rate for two or three years, respectively, so the former will first reset in June.

The average initial rate for the loans was 8.64 percent, set when the six-month Libor was 5.31 percent, according to the report. It was a teaser rate in the sense that once resets began, the interest rate would be based on Libor plus a spread of 6.22 percentage points.

Now the interesting thing is that the authors of the paper stress that they investigated only one pool used to illustrate how subprimes work and to try to understand how the product turned out to work so badly. The abstract and executive summary make no reference to the economics of subprimes. The abstract:
In this paper, we provide an overview of the subprime mortgage securitization process and the seven key informational frictions that arise. We discuss the ways that market participants work to minimize these frictions and speculate on how this process broke down. We continue with a complete picture of the subprime borrower and the subprime loan, discussing both predatory borrowing and predatory lending. We present the key structural features of a typical subprime securitization, document how rating agencies assign credit ratings to mortgage-backed securities, and outline how these agencies monitor the performance of mortgage pools over time. Throughout the paper, we draw upon the example of a mortgage pool securitized by New Century Financial during 2006

Fed economists no doubt would know better than to use on one pool of MBS issued by one issuer in one month for an economic when there are vastly more comprehensive data sources that are designed for precisely that sort of analysis. And a quick look at one suggests that Berry's conclusions are quite a stretch.

The American CoreLogic databases as of March 2007 contained 38 million mortgages. Their extraordinarily detailed analysis of 8.4 million ARMS originated between 2004 and 2006 showed only 9.1 % with initial interest rates of 8.5% or higher (note that the paper claims an average of 8.64%)

There were more mortgages ate 2% and below (1,1 million) than above 8.5% (770 thousand). Without throwing in the intermediate levels, it's obvious that the weighted average is well below 8.64% (the level in the New Century pool, which gave Berry the notion that there wouldn't be much reset shock). Similarly, a March 2007 (admittedly now dated) paper by Chris Cagan deemed ARMs with initial rates of 6.5% or higher as not-very-vulnerable to reset shock.

ARMs with low introductory rates were never intended to reset; the assumption was that the would refinance. And recent pools are running at unheard-of rates before reset, with monthly default rates of 3.5%, which equates to a 34.8% cumulative default rate over three years. Thus the performance of later subprimes is horrendous independent of the issue of resets.

Finally, while Libor was a popular index for setting the reset rate, it's far from the only benchmark. Others include the 11th District Cost of Funds rate, the Prime rate, the Monthly Treasury Average rate, the Constant Maturity Treasury rate. And some of these have not been affected by the Fed's cuts:



Note that while prime has fallen, its level is not much below what it was in 2005 and 2006, which were the heaviest years for origination of dubious subprimes (while the 2007 vintage is worse in terms of quality, the volume issues was lower than in the two preceding years):

Freddie Mac: No housing market rebound until 2010

(Calculated Risk) From Kevin Hall at McClatchy Newspapers: Home prices may not rebound till 2010 (hat tip John)

U.S. home prices are unlikely to recover until at least 2010, [Frank Nothaft, the chief economist for government-sponsored mortgage buyer Freddie Mac] said Thursday, adding that home building this year is likely to post its worst year in five decades.
Check out Nothaft's presentation: The Mortgage and Housing Market Outlook - all kinds of interesting data and charts.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Synthetic ABS. Who needs 'em anyway?

(Accrued Interest) Plans to create an auto loan ABS (asset-backed security) index, similar to the now infamous ABX index except for auto loans instead of home equity loans, were quietly scuttled last week. Creation of such an index would have allowed investors to buy and sell credit default swaps on a basket of auto loan securitizations, in effect, betting on the credit performance.


Why was it canceled? Partially because of the severe drop off in securitizations of consumer loans generally, there aren't a lot of recent auto loan deals to put into an efficient index. But there is a deeper issue. Many market participants are now questioning the value of these CDS indices. It was once thought that a more easily traded index of CDS would help improve price discovery in the asset-backed market. But is that what's happening now?

The market is only going to efficiently price a security when there is reasonable two-way flow. In other words, when a price is reached where there is a reasonable number of traders on both the short and long side. Is this what's been happening with the ABX index? No. Whatever you think of where actual value is on various ABX contracts, it certainly isn't a two-way market. Buyers of protection have dominated that market for about a year now. Of course there has to be a seller if there is a buyer, but I've persistently heard that sellers of protection have overwhelmingly been either paired trades along the capital structure (e.g., long the 2007-1 BBB and short 2007-2 BBB) or short covering.

Now one can look at any of the specific structures in the ABX library and make a case that the price should be higher or lower. That isn't the point. The point is that the ABX never developed natural buyers of risk. Once home equity structures became distressed, there were some buyers of cash bonds. But these are the kinds of buyers who want to comb through the structures and carefully analyze every dollar of cash flow. That kind of buyer is looking for a cash-flow diamond in the rough. Selling protection on the ABX is a bet on home equity spreads in general tightening. That's not the kind of bet distressed buyers like to make.

Meanwhile, with so few home equity bonds actually trading, the ABX became the only means of estimating a market value on home loan bonds. So right or wrong, the ABX became the "mark to market" for pricing many different types of mortgage-related paper. Buyers who were careful to buy higher quality home equity paper complained, as they believed they had better structures than those on which the ABX is based. But it didn't matter since there were no new deals with which to compare, the ABX is all auditors had to use as a base.

The negative feedback was severe. (Notice I didn't say it was a "loop") Any real money buyer who tried buying high quality home equity paper saw their marks based on the lower-quality ABX. Portfolio managers are hard-pressed to buy bonds, regardless of the fundamental value, if the mark is going to be substantially lower. With no real money buyers and liquidity very poor, it became impossible to securitize any mortgage-related paper.

What would have been better for all involved is if the market had been allowed to price bonds individually based on individual risk characteristics. Perhaps the dislocation in the mortgage market was too severe for that to have realistically happened. But the ABX caused everything to be priced on a lowest-common-denominator basis. That really didn't help anyone other than the shorts.

So given all this, it seems obvious why various market participants aren't too eager to create another ABX monster. Its true that default rates on auto loans are likely to rise significantly, both due to normal recessionary pressure as well as the weak housing market. But its also true that auto loan deals have been priced to take much greater losses than home loan paper ever was. Home loans were always modeled with the assumption that the collateral was an appreciating asset. Car loans never made this assumption. In fact, Fitch estimates that most AAA-rated auto loan deals can withstand 20% unemployment.

So the street would rather auto loan securitizations stand on their own cash flow results, rather than suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous technicals. There is a right price for ABS risk. Maybe, just maybe, finding that right price will allow the securitization market to make a slow comeback, at least outside of home loans. That will be a critical next step for solidifying market liquidity.

Moody’s Looks to Toughen Up on Mortgages

(Housing Wire) Moody’s Investors Service on Wednesday proposed a set of new requirements for residential mortgage securitizations, as the agency looks to toughen up its stance in the wake of a historic collapse in the private-party RMBS market, and after investors have questioned whether conflicts of interest prevented the agencies from properly structuring billions of dollars worth of mortgage deals.

The agency proposed sweeping changes to both the due diligence and surveillance processes, in particular, as well as suggesting it would undertake a significantly more comprehensive assessment of originators.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Moody’s said it wants to see completely independent third parties engaged during both issuance and underwriting, and during a “standard post-securitization forensic review” that would look at loans that become severely delinquent during the first 18 months of a deal’s life. The pre-issuance due diligence standard suggested by the agency would set a minimum sampling size of 5 to ten percent for prime and subprime loans.

Moody’s proposal to engage third parties at key stages of the securitization process represents a stark departure from current industry practice, and hits into the area most frequently targeted by critics as representing a conflict of interest for rating agencies, who are paid by issuers to structure deals on behalf of investors.

The agency also proposed sweeping changes to representations and warranties, suggesting that issuers “more explicitly address fraud, misrepresentation, data quality, early payment defaults and adherence to underwriting guidelines.” Moody’s said it may even decline to rate altogether transactions lacking the additional disclosures, as well as any transaction backed by an issuer lacking the financial resources to absorb repurchases.

Beyond the loans themselves, Moody’s also said it will conduct a more comprehensive review of each originator and will report on its opinion of its strengths and weaknesses, as well as maintaining records of each originator’s track record in previous securitizations. The rating agency did not say it would go so far as to actually rate originators, however — something many industry participants have suggested is a needed reform.

Moody’s also said it would likely become the latest party to start asking for additional data from issuers and servicers. The agency wants significantly expanded data to enhance its surveillance efforts, it said — and that includes monthly performance data that ties loan-level data from servicers together with the data collected during deal issuance. We’re talking about detailed data on loan modifications, fees, claims — everything.

Moody’s said it will look to apply the new standards to prime as well as non-prime securitizations. Industry participants have through April 11 to comment on the proposed rules.

The HELOC as disability insurance

(Calculated Risk) This morning we have Vikas Bajaj in the NYT reporting on second-lien lenders refusing to go quietly:

Americans owe a staggering $1.1 trillion on home equity loans — and banks are increasingly worried they may not get some of that money back.

To get it, many lenders are taking the extraordinary step of preventing some people from selling their homes or refinancing their mortgages unless they pay off all or part of their home equity loans first. In the past, when home prices were not falling, lenders did not resort to these measures.
Um. This isn't really a very helpful way to put it, you know. In the very concept of the "lien" is the idea that the lender gets to demand payment if you sell the property that is securing the loan, and in the very concept of "refinance" lurks the idea that you pay off the existing loan with the proceeds of the new one. These concepts are not "extraordinary."

What we mean here, I take it, is short sales and short refinances (or subordinations behind a distressed first-lien refinance). If so, we really ought to say that, because "in the past, when home prices were not falling," we didn't have a lot of short sales and short refis, so the occasion for second lienholders to object to them just didn't arise much.

The reason to insist on some clarity here is that I don't think it helps much to build up certain people's sense of entitlement on the matter. Or at least their occasionally fundamental confusion about what rights you give up to a lender when you sign this mortgage thingy.

There is an example in the Times article, of a couple who attempted a short sale which was derailed because the second lienholder wouldn't play nice:
Experts say it is in everyone’s interest to settle these loans, but doing so is not always easy. Consider Randy and Dawn McLain of Phoenix. The couple decided to sell their home after falling behind on their first mortgage from Chase and a home equity line of credit from CitiFinancial last year, after Randy McLain retired because of a back injury. The couple owed $370,000 in total.

After three months, the couple found a buyer willing to pay about $300,000 for their home — a figure representing an 18 percent decline in the value of their home since January 2007, when they took out their home equity credit line. (Single-family home prices in Phoenix have fallen about 18 percent since the summer of 2006, according to the Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller index.)

CitiFinancial, which was owed $95,500, rejected the offer because it would have paid off the first mortgage in full but would have left it with a mere $1,000, after fees and closing costs, on the credit line. The real estate agents who worked on the sale say that deal is still better than the one the lender would get if the home was foreclosed on and sold at an auction in a few months.
I'm not here to make up details not in evidence in a newspaper story, so bear that in mind. But my attention was caught by that detail about retiring due to an injury. As presented, the story seems to be that the McLains took out a HELOC in January of 2007, and at some point "last year" the borrowers fell behind in payments because of the disability. We aren't told by the Times whether the income troubles led to drawing down the HELOC, and then being unable to keep up payments, or if the HELOC had been drawn to the full $95,000 back in January of 2007, and subsequently the income troubles led to the McLains being unable to keep up the payments.

I bring this up only because the following item caught my eye yesterday (via Mish), from someone who apparently purports to be a source of personal finance advice:
As many readers know, I’m a proponent of keeping an untapped home equity line of credit (HELOC) at my disposal for major emergencies. This isn’t my emergency fund. It’s what I call my catastrophe fund.

I’ve always believed that keeping a HELOC readily available is the best insurance policy and the back-up plan for if / when the emergency fund runs empty. Think about it… being able to tap this money could buy us time in the event of job loss or illness. And time is money. . . .

The HELOC is there strictly as a backup plan. For a catastrophe. Period. End of story. But with that said, I’ve always looked at that line of credit as my money. Money I could access at any time. . . .

So it came as a surprise yesterday when we got the letter from Citibank about our $168,000 line of credit:
We have determined that home values in your area, including your home value, have significantly declined. As a result of this decline, your home’s value no longer supports the current credit limit for your home equity line of credit. Therefore, we are reducing the credit limit for your home equity line of credit, effective March 18, 2008, to $10,000. Our reduction of your credit limit is authorized by your line of credit agreement, federal law and regulatory guidelines.
Reduced to $10,000!? Hello!? Please don’t f-ck with my house in Newport Beach…

Of course, I’m calling them today to dispute it.
I left out the parts about how this writer is such a great credit risk now, and was when she qualified for the HELOC originally. I am merely struck by how unaware she is of the essential problem in her understanding of a HELOC as a kind of disability insurance: she is saying that she qualified for the line of credit as an employed, cash-flush borrower, but plans to use it only if she becomes . . . the kind of borrower who couldn't qualify for a HELOC.

Now, let me say that lenders were fully complicit in this idea; I heard more than a few sales pitches for HELOCs over the boom years based on this "do it just in case you need it" idea. But it was a self-defeating plan then and it is so clearly still one now: how do you get out of problems making your mortgage payment by increasing your mortgage debt--and not coincidentally decreasing your odds of selling your home should you need to?

More to today's point, how do you ask the HELOC lender to advance you money to pay the first lien lender with--I assume that's the idea of using the HELOC to "tide you over" in a bad patch, you're borrowing the first lien mortgage payments from the HELOC lender--knowing you aren't really (currently, at least) in any position to pay it back, and then ask the HELOC lender to let the first lien lender get all the proceeds in a short sale? Don't get me wrong: I fully understand why people hate lenders these days and think they're just getting what they "deserve." I'm just shocked at the naive assumption that they wouldn't fight back a little here.

As I said, I don't really know what the McLains' situation was, since we don't get much detail. But one can understand Citibank's near-total erasure of Ms. Newport Beach's unused HELOC as a sensible precaution on Citi's part, and not simply because home values are falling. Now is probably not a good time for HELOC lenders to be sitting on their duffs waiting for borrowers to run into financial trouble and use those HELOCs as a way to limp along to the point where the HELOC lender gets nothing in a foreclosure.

Of course Ms. Newport Beach believes that her potential use of a HELOC as "insurance" wouldn't be doomed to failure. Nobody ever believes that doubling down is doomed to failure; that's why they do it. But if in fact that's what the McLains did, it doesn't seem to have done anything for them except buy them time to negotiate a short sale that then fell through because CitiFinancial didn't like being the patsy at the table.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

OFHEO releases final guidance on conforming loan limits

How many people think the new "temporary jumbo conforming loan limits" are really temporary?

Apparently the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO) does.

From OFHEO: OFHEO Issues Final Guidance on Conforming Loan Limit Calculations

The final Guidance addresses the handling of decreases in the house price data used to set the conforming loan limit as well as procedural matters relating to calculation of the limit that determines the size of mortgages eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Based on comments received in two public comment periods, OFHEO is issuing a final Guidance that provides that the conforming loan limit would not decrease from its current level of $417,000 in 2009 and subsequent years. However, the conforming loan limit will not increase until cumulative increases in house prices exceed cumulative decreases since the $417,000 limit was first reached.
This means the conforming loan limit can never decrease, but it will not increase until prices have returned to earlier levels. Under the old guidance, the conforming loan limit was supposed to move with house prices, both up and down.

Of course, "temporary" probably means "permanent", and the limit will vary by MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area).

Taxpayers May Be Liable From Bear, Mortgage Rescue

(Bloomberg) -- Even as the Bush administration insists it won't risk public funds in a bailout, American taxpayers may already be liable for billions of dollars stemming from Federal Reserve and Treasury efforts to quell a financial crisis.

History suggests the Fed may not recover some of the almost $30 billion investment in illiquid mortgage securities it received from Bear Stearns Cos., said Joe Mason, a Drexel University professor who has written on banking crises. Treasury's push to have Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy more mortgage bonds reduces the capital the government-chartered companies hold in reserve at a time when foreclosures and defaults are surging. Senators are promising to investigate.

Officials ``are playing with fire,'' said Allan Meltzer, a Fed historian and economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. ``With good luck, none of these liabilities will come due. We can't expect that good luck, and we haven't had it.''

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson were forced to respond after capital markets seized up and Bear Stearns faced a run by creditors. In an emergency action that jeopardizes the dividend it pays the Treasury, the Fed authorized a $29 billion loan against illiquid mortgage- and asset-backed securities from Bear Stearns that will be held in a Delaware corporation. JPMorgan Chase & Co. contributed $1 billion.

Grassley, Baucus

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Charles Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican, gave Fed officials and JPMorgan executives a March 28 deadline to describe the assets involved in the transaction.

``Americans are being asked to back a brand-new kind of transaction, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars,'' Baucus said in a statement today. ``It's the Finance Committee's responsibility to pin down just how the government decided to front $30 billion in taxpayer dollars for the Bear Stearns deal, and to monitor the changing terms of the sale.''

The Delaware company will liquidate the assets over 10 years, with JPMorgan absorbing the first $1 billion in losses, with the Fed bearing any that remain. Any such losses would hurt the Fed's balance sheet, and ultimately the taxpayer, because they would reduce the stipend the Fed pays to the Treasury from earnings on its portfolio. The dividend was $29 billion in 2006.

Pushed to Front

``The fact that Treasury and Congress have been unwilling or unable to be proactive and provide a solution that involves putting taxpayer money at risk means that the Fed has had to take more measures itself, also putting taxpayer money at risk,'' said Laurence Meyer, a former Fed governor, and now vice chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers LLC in Washington.

The Treasury is counting on voluntary loan restructurings and $117 billion in tax rebates to support the economy through the worst housing recession in a quarter century.

Treasury spokeswoman Jennifer Zuccarelli referred to remarks Paulson made March 16 that he is ``looking very carefully'' at additional proposals, ``but all the ones I've seen call for much more government intervention.''

A day earlier, President George W. Bush said some of the ``sweeping government solutions'' proposed in Washington ``would make a complicated problem even worse.''

McCain Position

Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in a speech yesterday that ``when we commit taxpayer dollars as assistance, it should be accompanied by reforms'' to ensure ``transparency and accountability.''

The average recovery on failed bank assets is 40 cents on the dollar over a six-year period, according to Drexel's Mason, a former official at the Treasury's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Nobody knows if that historical benchmark will hold for the Fed portfolio because the assets haven't been disclosed, they have already been marked down and the Fed has 10 years to recover value.

``Over 10 years, you might eventually get your money back,'' said Janet Tavakoli, president of Tavakoli Structured Finance Inc. in Chicago.

Still, ``that isn't costless to the Fed, it isn't the same as holding Treasuries,'' she said. On some low-documentation loans, ``you are going to be lucky to get 40 percent.''

Paulson reversed Treasury's stand of the previous three years in approving the decision to direct Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to expand their $1.5 trillion mortgage assets. Previously, Treasury and the Fed had called for cuts in the portfolios held by the government-chartered companies.

Raising Capital

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will buffer against more risk by raising ``significant'' capital, Fannie Mae Chief Executive Officer Daniel Mudd and Freddie Mac Chief Executive Officer Richard Syron said at a press conference with James Lockhart, director of the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight that regulates the two companies.

The companies reported record fourth-quarter losses totaling $6 billion and warned days before announcing the additional purchases that credit losses will rise this year.

Lockhart dismissed the view that taxpayers could be liable for such losses. ``Certainly not,'' he said. The companies ``have the capital, they support their own'' mortgage-backed securities.

Yet the Treasury's authority to buy $2.25 billion in each of the companies' securities has created investor expectations that the firms hold an implicit federal guarantee against losses.

Lenders allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to borrow more cheaply than rival companies because they expect Treasury would provide a bailout before letting them default.

Because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac own or guarantee about 40 percent of the $11.5 trillion home loan market, the cost of a bailout would be ``in the hundreds of billions of dollars,'' said Andrew Laperriere, managing director at International Strategy & Investment Group in Washington. ``Taxpayers should be increasingly concerned about the contingent liability.''

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Falling Rates Help Borrowers, But For How Long?

(Housing Wire) A report released Tuesday by Standard & Poor’s reinforces earlier coverage here on Housing Wire — that falling 1-month and 3-month LIBOR rates have largely removed payment shock as an imminent threat for most hybrid ARM borrowers. The Fed’s aggressive policy of cutting its target funds rate has pushed key LIBOR rates below 3 percent, largely rendering payment shock irrelevant for many borrowers.

Unfortunately, however, the idea that ARM borrowers are out of the woods is true only so far as it goes: and that isn’t very far.

For subprime borrowers, S&P found that LIBOR rates ranging from 2 percent to 5 percent are the danger zone; rates below 2 percent render payment shock insignificant for most subprime borrowers, while rates above 5 percent would put subprime hybrid ARMs at the rate cap and render higher rates ineffectual from a borrower’s standpoint. At the current level, most subprime borrowers are only seeing a “shock” hovering around 1 percent, relative to their teaser rate — a number that goes up drastically as LIBOR increases.

For Alt-A borrowers, S&P suggests that the recent drop in LIBOR has “virtually eliminated” payment shock — but any increases of LIBOR above 3 percent would rapidly increase payment shock for Alt-A borrowers up and through a 6 percent ceiling. (Alt-A borrowers, however, are defaulting in droves regardless of payment resets, as we reported late last week).

To put this issue into perspective, consider that there are $4.3 trillion in hybrid ARMs resetting during 2008. Let that sink in.

That’s $4.3 trillion worth of borrowers that are now, essentially, hostage to LIBOR rates that they absolutely need to stay low in order for them to stay in their homes. With property values plummeting in areas where most hybrid ARMs are concentrated, home owners are finding their combined loan-to-value in most cases is outside the new, revised guidelines that most lenders now require.

Freeze of limited help, at best
Extending an ASF mortgage rate freeze plan originally developed for subprime borrowers into the troubled Alt-A market — the most likely option on the table should LIBOR increase — is likely to have only a modest effect, according to separate report published Tuesday by Standard and Poor’s. Especially for option ARM borrowers, many of whom now find themselves owing much more than their home is worth.

“We believe that only a small number of Alt-A borrowers will be able to refinance through a loan modification based on the ASF framework’s guidelines,” said credit analyst Mark Goldenberg, a director in Standard & Poor’s residential mortgage ratings group.

“Due to a combination of tighter underwriting and declining property values, many short-reset ARM borrowers, especially those with little home equity, may default as loans reset because refinancing into a new loan may not be a viable alternative for them.”

“Based on the performance of option ARM loans, we feel that servicers will likely need to take preemptive action to avoid losses,” he said.

REOs still increasing

(Calculated Risk) From the WSJ: Foreclosure Rate Outpaces Sales by Lenders

Foreclosures are occurring at the highest rate in decades -- and as a result, lenders are acquiring homes faster than they can sell them off.

Last year, sales of foreclosed homes rose just 4.4%, while the supply more than doubled, according to First American CoreLogic.
...
This year, sales of homes owned by lenders will likely total 480,000 properties, or 10% of all sales of previously occupied homes this year, [Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com] estimates.
With foreclosed properties accounting for 10% or more of the housing market, house prices will be under significant pressure all year.

As far as the supply of foreclosed homes increasing, I checked the Countrywide site, and I was a little surprised to see Countrywide's REO inventory declining.

Countrywide REOs Click on graph for larger image.

This is a graph from the Countrywide Foreclosures Blog showing that Countrywide's REO inventory appears to be declining. Puzzling. Perhaps Countrywide is being more aggressive than other lenders because of the pending acquisition by BofA.

Also from the WSJ: Wave of Foreclosures Drives Prices Lower, Lures Buyers
A glut of foreclosed homes of historic proportions is starting to drive down U.S. home prices faster as lenders put more properties on the market and buyers show signs of interest.

The ability of America's lenders to manage this fire sale will be crucial to determining how long the housing market stays in the dumps -- and how quickly blighted neighborhoods can heal. The oversupply is severe: In some major markets, including Las Vegas and San Diego, foreclosure-related sales have accounted for more than 40% of all sales in recent months.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Renters Beware

(Calculated Risk) Since it's Easter Sunday, and you don't have anything better to do than munch on Peeps and read about relitter perfidy, another in our continuing series on real estate fraud.

Via Mish, this story of renters in a bind:

When the Hays found their rental home last June they were pleased. Not only could they move in right away, the landlord asked them what they could afford for a deposit. There was even the chance to buy the home at some point in the future.

But that would all change in less than seven months. There's no forgetting the day Jennifer and Travis learned something wasn't right with their rental home. Their landlord called January 15, a memorable day. It was the same day Jennifer was headed into surgery.

"She called to tell me I should start looking for another place, that she could sell me a house," Jennifer explains. "And that's when I figured out that not only am I going through a miscarriage, but I was also going to lose my house."
You really want to read the whole thing, including the unbelievable text messages the relitter-landlord sent to the renters, trying to get them to pay February rent (after the bank took the house at the foreclosure sale in the end of January).

What I don't think is necessarily clear in the story as reported is the timeline. A "perfect" foreclosure in Nevada--that is, one without unusual delays, that uses basically standard servicer approaches for when to start FC proceedings--takes around 270 days from the last payment made. Nevada has a 90-day reinstatement period in the statutes, meaning that once the initial Notice of Default is filed, the borrower has the next 90 days to bring the loan current and avoid FC. After the 90 days, if the loan isn't reinstated, the notice of sale must be published three times over three consecutive weeks. Including time for processing the original FC referral (before the NOD is filed), it takes about 120 days to get through the process to the sale of the property. If the servicer does not initiate the FC process until the 120th day of delinquency (the 150th day since a payment was made), the whole thing is 270 days.

In our case at hand, that means that the owner of the property probably made her last mortgage payment on May 1, or possibly June 1 if the servicer started FC after the 90th day of delinquency. (This is assuming she ever made a payment; the article doesn't tell us when she bought the property.) She rented the place to the Hays in June. In other words, we don't have a case here of a landlord who gets into financial difficulties at some point in time after renting the place to tenants. We have someone who appears to have intended from the start to "skim off" rents without paying the mortgage.

I really don't know how the Hays could have spotted this up front; there are no public records that will tell you if your landlord is delinquent the day you sign your lease, or is going to be delinquent thereafter. Tenants can check public records to see if a landlord is in foreclosure--if that Notice of Default or whatever it is in a specific state has been filed--but there's nothing to see until that document is filed. In the case at hand, it appears that nasty letters from the servicer were actually coming to the property address, but these tenants were apparently unwilling to open mail not addressed to them, and fell for the landlord's "explanation" of what that flurry of certified mail was all about. I'm sure it never occurred to the Hays that while some legitimate landlords will have servicer mail directed to the property address, that can also be a good indication that the property was obtained under occupancy fraud (that is, that the landlord claimed to the lender that the property would be the landlord's principal residence). Sadly, there's no sure-fire way for people who rent single-family homes from an individual to really verify whether or not they're getting caught up in a rent-skimming scam.

There is also no sure-fire way for servicers to know that this is going on, although there are steps that can be taken. A while ago we were confronted with a rant from our favorite Gretchen Morgenson, railing about servicers hitting delinquent borrowers with "unnecessary" property inspection fees. I have no way of knowing if the servicer in the Hays' case did inspections at all, if the inspector saw signs of occupancy and assumed the occupants were the owners, or if the inspector did catch on and the FC was actually accelerated because the servicer feared that rent-skimming was, indeed, transpiring. I do always fear, when the delinquent owner is a member of the local RE establishment, that the "inspector" might have eyes wide shut. I do actually claim to know that this is why delinquent borrowers find themselves with a bill for periodic inspections.

I make no claims that scams like the one perpetrated against the Hays--and it is a scam to enter a rental agreement with someone while not disclosing that you're about to lose the property to FC, that's kind of a material fact--are common or usual or an "epidemic." I am, however, convinced that a lot of "speculators" are suddenly trying to convert themselves into "landlords," and that the results aren't going to be good for anyone--not for the tenants, and not for the lenders. There's a problem with market-comparable rents not being high enough to satisfy the mortgage payment, and then there's the problem that it may not be anyone's intention to satisfy the mortgage payment anyway.

Nonetheless, I've seen some people lately encouraging renters to "take advantage" of the ability to rent nice big houses on the cheap from an amateur landlord these days, given the distress in the RE market. I'm merely observing that there is some room for caution, yet again, when the deal sounds "too good to be true." I am also observing that folks who have no experience with being landlords, and who are tempted to buy properties "on the cheap" in a foreclosure or short sale and rent them out, might want to stop and consider that they might have to "compete" with "distressed" landlords who can offer prospective tenants a "better deal"--no or minimal deposit, short-term or flexible lease terms, low rent--since they have no intention of making mortgage payments. In the current environment, you had better make sure you can carry the PITI and maintenance on a rental property you buy with a very high "vacancy factor." Any "RE guru" who is telling you different may well have, shall we say, ulterior motives.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Overlevered Brits facing their day of reckoning?

(Naked Capitalism) If you read between the lines of the Financial Times story that served as a point of departure for a post earlier this evening ("Desperate Central Bankers to Bail Out MBS Market?") it was clear that the Bank of England was the most keen to shore up the wobbly mortgage securities market.

This New York Times article, "Debt-Gorged British Start to Worry That the Party Is Ending," explains why. The British are on the same downward path we are on, with perhaps a one-year delay, and an even higher level of gearing.

From the New York Times:
At one point, Alexis Hall had more than 50 pairs of designer shoes and handbags. It never occurred to the 39-year-old media relations executive from Glasgow that her £31,500 in debt ($63,000) would be a problem.

“It was so easy to get the loans and the credit that you almost think the goods are a gift from the shop,” she said....

As the United States economy weakens, many Americans are being overwhelmed by personal debt, but Britons are even more profligate. For most of the last decade, consumers here went on a debt-financed spending spree that made them the most indebted rich nation in the world, racking up a record £1.4 trillion in debt ($2.8 trillion) — more than the country’s gross domestic product.

By comparison, personal debt in the United States is $13.8 trillion, including mortgage debt, slightly less than the country’s $14 trillion G.D.P.

And while the Federal Reserve in Washington has cut interest rates, in an effort to loosen lenders’ grip on credit, the Bank of England’s interest rate increases last year are trickling through to mortgages at the very time home values are dropping and banks are becoming more reluctant to lend.

Until now, debt has mostly been a good thing for Britain. In the hands of free-spending consumers, it fueled economic growth. The government borrowed heavily in recent years to invest in infrastructure, health and education, creating a virtuous cycle: government spending led to job creation, which led to greater consumer confidence and more spending, which, in turn, stimulated growth.

Economists say Britain’s relationship to debt is complex, but at its core is a phenomenon more akin to recent American history than European trends. As in the United States, a decade-long housing boom and strong economic growth bolstered consumer confidence, creating a perception of wealth almost unknown in countries like Germany and Italy.

“Culturally, maybe also because of the defeat in the war, Germans remain reluctant to borrow and banks are often state-owned, pushing less for profits from lending,” said Alistair Milne, a professor at Cass Business School in London.

Since many younger Britons have never lived through a period of slow growth, few now see the need to hold back on borrowing, not to mention saving....

To her parent’s generation, Ms. Hall said, owing money beyond a mortgage was “shameful,” an admission of living beyond one’s means. Debt was also more difficult to get.

That changed in the late 1990s when American lenders, including Citigroup and CapitalOne, pushed into the British market with a panoply of new lending products. Fierce competition among banks meant potential borrowers were suddenly bombarded with advertising and offers for low- or no-interest loans and credit cards.

While Britain’s financial regulators watched the explosion of retail lending from the sidelines, their counterparts in Germany and France were more restrictive. As a result, the British market became the largest and most sophisticated in Europe.

The growth was also fueled by soaring demand for debt on the back of rising real estate prices and relatively low interest rates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Those who did not own a house rushed to join the homeowners watching their property triple in value.

The trend on the Continent was the opposite. Home prices in most European countries barely moved, mainly because markets were more regulated, there was more housing stock and renting was more popular...

As the perception of wealth grew, the social stigma around debt disappeared. Borrowing became such an accepted part of life that today one in five teenagers does not consider being in debt to be a bad thing, a survey by Nationwide Building Society showed.

Debt levels increased further as it became easier to get loans, and retailers, like computer chain PC World, offered both goods and the loans to buy them. Consumers happily accepted, thinking that as long as they were deemed creditworthy, they were not in danger of defaulting....

The ease of the bankruptcy process, the availability of debt, the property boom and strong economic growth, lulled consumers into a “false sense of security that is now coming to haunt us,” said James Falla, a debt adviser at London-based Thomas Charles....

And things are changing. Growth has already started to slow this year, and the government lowered its 2008 forecast to 1.75 percent to 2.25 percent, after 3.1 percent growth last year.

Home prices are falling.... Last year, housing foreclosures reached the highest level since 1999 and are expected to rise still further this year.

And more than one million homeowners have adjustable-rate mortgages that are expected to reset in the next 12 months — to significantly higher rates...

According to a survey for the Office of National Statistics, less than half the population saves regularly, and more than 39 percent said they would rather enjoy a good standard of living today than save for retirement. Ms. Hall said she was among that 39 percent. She recently took out new loans, planning to repay her existing debt. But she ended up spending the money on more luxury goods instead.

This year, she published a book about her experiences. She said she did not expect the book’s proceeds to repay her debts, but it may help the growing number of people in similar positions cope with theirs.

Desperate central bankers to bail out MBS market?

(Naked Capitalism) I quoted Lucy Kellaway, who once said (apropos management fads), "No idea is too ridiculous to be put into practice," and warned that the credit crisis would soon get that sort of treatment.

A story in the Financial Times indicated we are getting closer to that stage:
Central banks on both sides of the Atlantic are actively engaged in discussions about the feasibility of mass purchases of mortgage-backed securities as a possible solution to the credit crisis.

Such a move would involve the use of public funds to shore up the market in a key financial instrument and restore confidence by ending the current vicious circle of forced sales, falling prices and weakening balance sheets.

The Fed apparently called Greg Ip at the Wall Street Journal to quash this leak, um, rumor (hat tip Calculated Risk) but don't be surprised if it rears its ugly head in a few months.

Nevertheless, this is a curious and appallingly naive characterization of the problem. Yes, we are seeing credit contraction, and it isn't pretty. But the deleveraging isn't the result of a negative feedback loop operating in a vacuum; it's that a lot of mortgage borrowers cannot make their payments, and their number will increase over the next few years to to ARM resets. And because prices in most markets had risen to levels that were way out of line with incomes, there are simply not even remotely enough people who could afford to buy the houses undergoing defaults at the prices at which they had been financed.

There seems to be a collective fantasy at work, that somehow the powers that be can wave magic wands and turn bad assets into good ones. While you can do that on a small scale, we have a roughly $20 trillion residential housing market that is being repriced for good reason. We've gone on about this ad nauseum; a fresh statement of the underlying problem comes from Bill Fleckenstein in "Catering to the Balioiut Nation" (hat tip Nattering Naybob):
Where will all this stop? Can those who behaved prudently afford to bail out those who behaved imprudently? Why should they have to? And is that what we really want? After all, this country's median income of roughly $49,000 can hardly be expected to service the debt of the median home price of $234,000, up from approximately $160,000 in 2000.

Let's do a little math. Forty-nine thousand dollars in yearly income leaves approximately $35,000 in after-tax dollars. Call it $3,000 a month. A 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage would cost approximately $1,500 per month. That leaves only $1,500 a month for a family to pay for everything else! (Of course, in many communities the math is even less tenable.) This is the crux of the problem, and the government cannot fix it.

Housing prices, thanks to the bubble and inflation, have risen well past the point where the median (or typical middle-class) family can afford them. Either income must rise -- which seems unlikely on an inflated-adjusted basis -- or home prices must come down.

And if that didn't convince you, have a look at this (click to enlarge):


Even coordinated government action cannot prop up asset prices when the underlying cash flow isn't there. Japan tried that, and they had the advantage of having very high domestic savings. The Home Owners Loan Corporation of the Great Depression's results are not comparable to our current situation. First, it was not implemented till 1933, so the weakest borrowers had already lost their homes. Second, mortgages were structured differently then than now: much shorter terms (15 year was the usual limit) and vastly loan to value ratios (50% was the max, and of course, paydowns would reduce that amount). HOLC refinanced these into 30 year mortgages. Thus even with large housing price declines, the HOLC in the vast majority of cases was issuing loans against homes that still had equity.

Conversely, the damage of letting housing fall to a market clearing level appears to be overstated, and the lack of empirical investigation into the results of housing busts in other advanced economies is a major lapse. This comes from a post last August:
Let's look at what has happened in other countries that had large declines in real estate prices.

The housing recession of the early 1990s was far worse overseas.....
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United Kingdom, Finland, Norway, and Sweden experienced peak to trough falls in prices of greater than 25 per cent. Sharper falls have been observed in some South and East Asian economies over the 1990s, particularly in Hong Kong and Japan.

....yet despite Gross invoking the specter of the Depression, these economies suffered only short, nasty recessions. UK GDP fell 2.5% in 1991 and 0.5% in 1992.. According to NATO, Finland had a steeper fall because its contraction was caused by economic overheating, depressed foreign markets, and the dismantling of the barter system between Finland and the former Soviet Union under which Soviet oil and gas had been exchanged for Finnish manufactured goods. Thus its fall in housing prices was more a consequence than a cause of its recession. Sweden similarly suffered from disruption of its trade relationship with the former USSR. Hong Kong has enjoyed high growth and volatile real estate prices, but the only year it had negative GDP growth was 1998, the year after its reunification with the mainland, when it suffered a major capital flight.

So while these economies all have different structures than the US, their experience nevertheless suggests that even severe housing recessions do not inflict long-term damage. I'd very much like to hear the views of those who have studied the international record more deeply, but this quick survey suggests the price of a housing recession is a sharp but short-lived real economy contraction.

Another problem with the "let's just go buy the mortgages" line of thinking is a propensity to rely on models rather than empiricism. With all due respect to Paul Krugman, who came to the right conclusion in his post, his analysis seems to have encouraged some other economists (witness this post from Brad De Long, whose analysis is mainly sound) who are trying to restore the bubble equilibrium (point H on Krugman's chart):
But in the current situation, a lot of securities are held by market players who have leveraged themselves up. When prices fall beyond a certain point, they get calls from Mr. Margin, and have to sell off some of their holdings to meet those calls. The result can be a stretch of the demand curve that’s sloped the “wrong way”: falling prices actually reduce demand. So the market could look like this:

Krugman has the right insight: H exists only by virtue of leverage. He continued:
Implicitly, Fed policy seems to be based on the view that if only they can restore confidence — with extra liquidity to the banks, Fed fund rate cuts, whatever — they can get us out of L and back to H. That’s the LTCM model: Rubin and Greenspan met a crisis with a rate cut and a show of confidence, and the whole thing went away.

But at this point a series of rate cuts and other stuff just hasn’t done the trick — which suggests that maybe there isn’t a high-price equilibrium out there at all. Maybe the underlying losses in housing and elsewhere are sufficiently large that the situation really looks like this:


And in that case, the Fed can’t rescue the financial markets. All it — and the feds in general — can do is to try to limit the effects of financial crisis on the rest of the economy.

Let's consider another complicating factor: that just about every effort to ameliorate the credit crisis has merely produced problems elsewhere. The "let's just buy the mortgages" advocates forget that the sharp rise in Freddie and Fannie spreads that kicked off the latest round of deleveraging didn't come out of a clear sky, It was a negative market reaction to the increase in the mortgage ceilings on the GSEs in combination of making them the refinancer of crappy mortgages. That would be enough to spook any investor. In a post earlier this week, we went thougt a list of unintended consequences (a more accurate term would have been backfires) of the Fed's efforts to date. Reader Lune ventured what might happen next:
Now we have 3) Fed opens TSLF to broker-dealers. Given the track record of our esteemed Fed so far, I shudder to think what the unintended consequences of this one will be, and I'm disturbed that it's very likely that no one has thought about that while running around in a panic shooting from the hip at any shadow that comes up. Anyway, here's my speculation...

The Fed is already close to tapping its full balance sheet. The trigger for the collapse of the past few weeks has been the rise of agency spreads, which is the cause not the effect of all the implosions we've seen so far. So to stop the panic, the Fed would have to intervene in the agency market. But it's remaining reserves of ~$400bil is tiny compared to the amount of debt out there. Furthermore, even a full faith govt. guarantee is unlikely to stop the rise in premiums (witness Ginnie Mae debt, where spreads are increasing even with a govt. guarantee). This is partially because of panic, and partially because agency debt will have fundamentally different behavior when it includes all the extra debt Congress is talking about stuffing it with. So with that uncertainty and unpredictability, it's no wonder spreads are increasing.

As the spreads continue to claim more casualties, more firms will line up for funding (when do hedge funds get to drink directly from the punch bowl? At this rate, probably in a week or two), and the Fed, unable to say no, will have to start issuing treasuries to expand its balance sheet. Within a matter of a month or two, the Fed will find itself with a trillion or so dollars of impaired debt in a "repo" that can't ever be recalled (some because the counterparty's balance sheet is still too weak, others because the counterparty has gone BK). The ultimate casualty? The Fed itself, unable to lower interest rates below 0%, facing default on collateral on its hands, and counterparties (central banks) unwilling to trust the Fed to manage the dollar any longer.

Oh yeah, and mortgage markets will still be frozen.

We are unlikely to see a bottom to the housing market for quite a while (historical precedents suggest early 2011) and that solvency problems have to work there way through the system. If we must have rescue operations, I would much prefer something along the lines suggested by Robert Reich:
The next question is how to cushion the blow for middle and lower-income people who might lose their homes or their jobs, cars, medical insurance, and large chunks of their pensions. This may require federally-subsidized insurance -- mortgage insurance so homeowners can meet payments, along with expanded unemployment insurance, health insurance, maybe even pension insurance. All hard to accomplish, but ultimately more important than bailing out the big banks.

I will admit to not having thought this idea through, but the intent of policy should be to limit damage to individuals rather than intervene in asset market in ways that are destined to fail anyhow. After all, isn't all this hooplah to prevent a recession? And I thought recessions were bad because they increased unemployment (oh yes, and lower corporate profits too). Maybe it's time to recognize that a recession is unavoidable, and that the efforts to contain it are producing serious side effects that are at least as bad as the problem they are intended to solve. And that's just looking at the immediate impact; this becomes a net negative effort when the Fed's credibility is irreparably damaged (and we are just about there).

The one bit of good news: the FT article made clear that any rescue program was not going to come into being any time soon, and that was before the Fed's denial.

Desperate central bankers to bail out MBS market?

(Naked Capitalism) I quoted Lucy Kellaway, who once said (apropos management fads), "No idea is too ridiculous to be put into practice," and warned that the credit crisis would soon get that sort of treatment.

A story in the Financial Times indicated we are getting closer to that stage:
Central banks on both sides of the Atlantic are actively engaged in discussions about the feasibility of mass purchases of mortgage-backed securities as a possible solution to the credit crisis.

Such a move would involve the use of public funds to shore up the market in a key financial instrument and restore confidence by ending the current vicious circle of forced sales, falling prices and weakening balance sheets.

The Fed apparently called Greg Ip at the Wall Street Journal to quash this leak, um, rumor (hat tip Calculated Risk) but don't be surprised if it rears its ugly head in a few months.

Nevertheless, this is a curious and appallingly naive characterization of the problem. Yes, we are seeing credit contraction, and it isn't pretty. But the deleveraging isn't the result of a negative feedback loop operating in a vacuum; it's that a lot of mortgage borrowers cannot make their payments, and their number will increase over the next few years to to ARM resets. And because prices in most markets had risen to levels that were way out of line with incomes, there are simply not even remotely enough people who could afford to buy the houses undergoing defaults at the prices at which they had been financed.

There seems to be a collective fantasy at work, that somehow the powers that be can wave magic wands and turn bad assets into good ones. While you can do that on a small scale, we have a roughly $20 trillion residential housing market that is being repriced for good reason. We've gone on about this ad nauseum; a fresh statement of the underlying problem comes from Bill Fleckenstein in "Catering to the Balioiut Nation" (hat tip Nattering Naybob):
Where will all this stop? Can those who behaved prudently afford to bail out those who behaved imprudently? Why should they have to? And is that what we really want? After all, this country's median income of roughly $49,000 can hardly be expected to service the debt of the median home price of $234,000, up from approximately $160,000 in 2000.

Let's do a little math. Forty-nine thousand dollars in yearly income leaves approximately $35,000 in after-tax dollars. Call it $3,000 a month. A 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage would cost approximately $1,500 per month. That leaves only $1,500 a month for a family to pay for everything else! (Of course, in many communities the math is even less tenable.) This is the crux of the problem, and the government cannot fix it.

Housing prices, thanks to the bubble and inflation, have risen well past the point where the median (or typical middle-class) family can afford them. Either income must rise -- which seems unlikely on an inflated-adjusted basis -- or home prices must come down.

And if that didn't convince you, have a look at this (click to enlarge):


Even coordinated government action cannot prop up asset prices when the underlying cash flow isn't there. Japan tried that, and they had the advantage of having very high domestic savings. The Home Owners Loan Corporation of the Great Depression's results are not comparable to our current situation. First, it was not implemented till 1933, so the weakest borrowers had already lost their homes. Second, mortgages were structured differently then than now: much shorter terms (15 year was the usual limit) and vastly loan to value ratios (50% was the max, and of course, paydowns would reduce that amount). HOLC refinanced these into 30 year mortgages. Thus even with large housing price declines, the HOLC in the vast majority of cases was issuing loans against homes that still had equity.

Conversely, the damage of letting housing fall to a market clearing level appears to be overstated, and the lack of empirical investigation into the results of housing busts in other advanced economies is a major lapse. This comes from a post last August:
Let's look at what has happened in other countries that had large declines in real estate prices.

The housing recession of the early 1990s was far worse overseas.....
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United Kingdom, Finland, Norway, and Sweden experienced peak to trough falls in prices of greater than 25 per cent. Sharper falls have been observed in some South and East Asian economies over the 1990s, particularly in Hong Kong and Japan.

....yet despite Gross invoking the specter of the Depression, these economies suffered only short, nasty recessions. UK GDP fell 2.5% in 1991 and 0.5% in 1992.. According to NATO, Finland had a steeper fall because its contraction was caused by economic overheating, depressed foreign markets, and the dismantling of the barter system between Finland and the former Soviet Union under which Soviet oil and gas had been exchanged for Finnish manufactured goods. Thus its fall in housing prices was more a consequence than a cause of its recession. Sweden similarly suffered from disruption of its trade relationship with the former USSR. Hong Kong has enjoyed high growth and volatile real estate prices, but the only year it had negative GDP growth was 1998, the year after its reunification with the mainland, when it suffered a major capital flight.

So while these economies all have different structures than the US, their experience nevertheless suggests that even severe housing recessions do not inflict long-term damage. I'd very much like to hear the views of those who have studied the international record more deeply, but this quick survey suggests the price of a housing recession is a sharp but short-lived real economy contraction.

Another problem with the "let's just go buy the mortgages" line of thinking is a propensity to rely on models rather than empiricism. With all due respect to Paul Krugman, who came to the right conclusion in his post, his analysis seems to have encouraged some other economists (witness this post from Brad De Long, whose analysis is mainly sound) who are trying to restore the bubble equilibrium (point H on Krugman's chart):
But in the current situation, a lot of securities are held by market players who have leveraged themselves up. When prices fall beyond a certain point, they get calls from Mr. Margin, and have to sell off some of their holdings to meet those calls. The result can be a stretch of the demand curve that’s sloped the “wrong way”: falling prices actually reduce demand. So the market could look like this:

Krugman has the right insight: H exists only by virtue of leverage. He continued:
Implicitly, Fed policy seems to be based on the view that if only they can restore confidence — with extra liquidity to the banks, Fed fund rate cuts, whatever — they can get us out of L and back to H. That’s the LTCM model: Rubin and Greenspan met a crisis with a rate cut and a show of confidence, and the whole thing went away.

But at this point a series of rate cuts and other stuff just hasn’t done the trick — which suggests that maybe there isn’t a high-price equilibrium out there at all. Maybe the underlying losses in housing and elsewhere are sufficiently large that the situation really looks like this:


And in that case, the Fed can’t rescue the financial markets. All it — and the feds in general — can do is to try to limit the effects of financial crisis on the rest of the economy.

Let's consider another complicating factor: that just about every effort to ameliorate the credit crisis has merely produced problems elsewhere. The "let's just buy the mortgages" advocates forget that the sharp rise in Freddie and Fannie spreads that kicked off the latest round of deleveraging didn't come out of a clear sky, It was a negative market reaction to the increase in the mortgage ceilings on the GSEs in combination of making them the refinancer of crappy mortgages. That would be enough to spook any investor. In a post earlier this week, we went thougt a list of unintended consequences (a more accurate term would have been backfires) of the Fed's efforts to date. Reader Lune ventured what might happen next:
Now we have 3) Fed opens TSLF to broker-dealers. Given the track record of our esteemed Fed so far, I shudder to think what the unintended consequences of this one will be, and I'm disturbed that it's very likely that no one has thought about that while running around in a panic shooting from the hip at any shadow that comes up. Anyway, here's my speculation...

The Fed is already close to tapping its full balance sheet. The trigger for the collapse of the past few weeks has been the rise of agency spreads, which is the cause not the effect of all the implosions we've seen so far. So to stop the panic, the Fed would have to intervene in the agency market. But it's remaining reserves of ~$400bil is tiny compared to the amount of debt out there. Furthermore, even a full faith govt. guarantee is unlikely to stop the rise in premiums (witness Ginnie Mae debt, where spreads are increasing even with a govt. guarantee). This is partially because of panic, and partially because agency debt will have fundamentally different behavior when it includes all the extra debt Congress is talking about stuffing it with. So with that uncertainty and unpredictability, it's no wonder spreads are increasing.

As the spreads continue to claim more casualties, more firms will line up for funding (when do hedge funds get to drink directly from the punch bowl? At this rate, probably in a week or two), and the Fed, unable to say no, will have to start issuing treasuries to expand its balance sheet. Within a matter of a month or two, the Fed will find itself with a trillion or so dollars of impaired debt in a "repo" that can't ever be recalled (some because the counterparty's balance sheet is still too weak, others because the counterparty has gone BK). The ultimate casualty? The Fed itself, unable to lower interest rates below 0%, facing default on collateral on its hands, and counterparties (central banks) unwilling to trust the Fed to manage the dollar any longer.

Oh yeah, and mortgage markets will still be frozen.

We are unlikely to see a bottom to the housing market for quite a while (historical precedents suggest early 2011) and that solvency problems have to work there way through the system. If we must have rescue operations, I would much prefer something along the lines suggested by Robert Reich:
The next question is how to cushion the blow for middle and lower-income people who might lose their homes or their jobs, cars, medical insurance, and large chunks of their pensions. This may require federally-subsidized insurance -- mortgage insurance so homeowners can meet payments, along with expanded unemployment insurance, health insurance, maybe even pension insurance. All hard to accomplish, but ultimately more important than bailing out the big banks.

I will admit to not having thought this idea through, but the intent of policy should be to limit damage to individuals rather than intervene in asset market in ways that are destined to fail anyhow. After all, isn't all this hooplah to prevent a recession? And I thought recessions were bad because they increased unemployment (oh yes, and lower corporate profits too). Maybe it's time to recognize that a recession is unavoidable, and that the efforts to contain it are producing serious side effects that are at least as bad as the problem they are intended to solve. And that's just looking at the immediate impact; this becomes a net negative effort when the Fed's credibility is irreparably damaged (and we are just about there).

The one bit of good news: the FT article made clear that any rescue program was not going to come into being any time soon, and that was before the Fed's denial.