Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Foreclosure Mess: 7 Reasons Why It's Much Worse Than You Think

We're in a big, big mess with home foreclosures in the U.S. (foreclosuregate, if you will). I'm not sure many people understand the awful magnitude of this train wreck. So here is my look at seven reasons why it's much worse than you think. Below I partly synthesize much of the fine analysis being done elsewhere (Mike Konczal has been absolutely superb on this issue, as has Yves Smith).

Quick background: In 1996, a private company was formed called Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, or MERS for short. Why should you care? Chances are better than 50-50 that, if you own a home, MERS officially recorded the mortgage -- probably unknown to you. MERS is headed by R.K. Arnold, a former U.S. Army Ranger with a law degree from Oklahoma City University, ranked #104 in the nation this year by the Association of American Law Schools.

Now you may be worried that Arnold, a guy who apparently doesn't exactly have a stellar legal pedigree, is the CEO of this giant institution that registers millions of mortgages from Big Sur to Beacon Hill. Don't be. Because MERS doesn't have any real employees. It's kind of a shell. MERS Treasurer William C. Hultman revealed as much during a deposition in Bank of New York v. Ukpe:
Q I thought, sir, there’s a company that was
formed January 1, 1999 [sic], Mortgage Electronic Registration
Systems, Inc. Does it have paid employees?
A No, it does not.

Q Does it have employees?
A No.

Q Does MERS have any employees?
A Did they ever have any? I couldn’t hear you.

Q Does MERS have any employees currently?
A No.

Q In the last five years has MERS had any
A No.
Why the heck would you form a company, then not hire anyone? Well, what's the purpose of your company? If you're making widgets, you need widget inspectors, widget engineers, widget fabricators etc. But MERS was created for mortgage banks to dodge paying local recording fees (and doing the associated paperwork, one assumes) when mortgages were re-assigned. So let's say Wall Street wants to bundle a bunch of mortgages into a security, which then is cut up into teeny pieces to go into another security, which is diced once more to go into another security ... thanks to MERS, you can do all this with a minimum of hassles/expense.

Cool beans, until it all starts to come apart at the seams, and you realize that the companies making the original loans were extending credit to people who could barely fog a mirror in the midst of a huge housing bubble and you've got to foreclose and where's all that paperwork you're going to need dammit?

So, without further ado, here are seven reasons we're in the middle of a really epic mess right now:

1. MERS may be a fraudulent company at its very core.

This becomes obvious in the answer to a simple question: How does a company with no employees foreclose on millions of homes across the U.S.? Easy. Apparently it "simply farms out the MERS Inc. identity to employees of mortgage servicers, originators, debt collectors, and foreclosure law firms." MERS even sells its corporate seal for $25 on its Web page. This corporate structure "is so unorthodox as to arguably be considered fraudulent," says Christopher Peterson, a law professor at the University of Utah.

Exacerbating this problem: no state legislature or appellate court ever gave its stamp of approval to MERS in the first place, so it has no acknowledged legitimacy.

2. Widespread fraud may be taking place to cover up the lapses of MERS.

Mike at Rortybomb does a great job explaining how your mortgage consists of two parts, a promissory note (you promise to repay the lender X dollars, and under what conditions, and with what penalties for missing payments) and a mortgage, known in some states as a deed of trust. Mike reduces all this nicely: "The note is the IOU, it’s the borrower’s promise to pay. The mortgage, or the lien, is just the enforcement right to take the property if the note goes unpaid." Common sense dictates that both parts are necessary to move to foreclose. You can't apply the enforcement without knowing the terms of the note and how much remains unpaid.

But as Yves Smith alarmingly details at naked capitalism, the banks apparently got impatient with the messiness of paper notes in an electronic age. Again, without anyone's approval to do this (no courts signed off, no legislatures gave authority), it looks like they converted physical notes on a massive scale to electronic documents -- safer, cheaper, easier to store etc. ... and destroyed or misplaced a lot of those original notes.

The trouble is when the homeowner being foreclosed on demands that the note be produced. The ensuing document scramble has led to fraudulently created replacements. It's hard to say on what scale this is occurring, but Yves included a chilling quote that she says came from the CEO of a big subprime lender, who defended the practice of transfers lacking paper notes, then had a nervous moment of doubt: “Well, if you’re right [that it's a problem], we’re f**ked. We never transferred the paper. No one in the industry transferred the paper.”

3. This mess is greatly complicated by long, complex chains of securitization.

Mike at Rortybomb provides a good diagram. Start with Joe Homeowner, whose mortgage is originated by say Easy Mortgages 'R Us. Easy Mortgages 'R Us passes the note to the next link in the chain, a sponsor for the security being created (say it's Bank of America, which will scoop up a thousand mortgages, including Joe Homeowner's, and turn them into a product called a residential mortgage-backed security). Then there's a depositor that stands between Bank of America and the trust itself for the mortgage-backed security.

Phew. That's plenty complex. But Mike gave readers only the short form. The residential mortgage-backed security can itself be bundled with other similar securities into a creature called a collateralized debt obligation, or CDO (that should sound familiar from Congressional hearings). And then the CDO can be sliced up and bundled with other strips of CDOs into something known as a CDO squared. Now do it one more time and you get a CDO cubed.

Now remember that old saying: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Now here are the many links we've just created for Joe Homeowner's mortgage:

Joe Homeowner --> Mortage Originator --> Sponsor --> Depositor --> Trust for RMBS --> CDO --> CDO squared --> CDO cubed. Moreover, I've probably left out a few entities on the CDO level; I'm sure they use similar intermediary units as the RMBS to create their securities.

Exacerbating this problem: The chains were created too quickly, during what turned out to be unstable times (a bad real estate bubble being inflated). So they're not even relatively robust chains.

4. Ladies and gentlemen, I present: Lawsuit-palooza.

Mike delves into this. Foreclosuregate is a full employment act for lawyers. You could have lawsuits anywhere up and down that chain of document transfer. Investors in the mortgage-backed securities will sue servicers. Homeowners will sue on being foreclosed on, demanding to see the note (with the number of suits increasing exponentially as there are more victories, creating a crushing backlog of cases in our legal system). Investors in the securities will jostle for position and battle with each other, the junior debtholders aligned against the senior. The RMBS trust will go after the sponsor for dumping mortgages on it that lacked the proper paperwork.

5. This will be resistant to fixes, for one, because the mortgage-servicer system for the securities is badly set up, with all the wrong incentives.

Mike nails this one too. The smart way to fix these problems would involve lenders working with homeowners to pare down the loan principal for deeply underwater homes. This approach has been shown consistently to work out better for all parties than foreclosing. At the same time, the lender could take the opportunity to remedy the defective paperwork.

But the mortgage servicer, the one who controls what happens with the mortgages that are now embedded in a security (or maybe multiple securities -- remember those CDOs squared?), doesn't have an incentive to do this. His incentives are narrowly structured: he gets fees, on a certain schedule, for foreclosing. He doesn't get paid for the time-consuming process of working out a solution that would ultimately benefit the investor in the security and the homeowner as well.

In fact, as Mike notes, securitizations must be passive entities to win a bunch of tax breaks. As such, they can't do much hunting down of notes or anything else, it seems, without risking losing their tax-exempt status. A really miserable setup, which is going to be an obstacle to resolving this mess.

6. This will also be resistant to fixes because it's going to be hard to wave a magic wand on the federal level and make the problems disappear.

This situation is playing out locally, not federally -- county by county, state by state. And as the political heat builds on the big, bad banks -- much of America already hates them for their oversized bonuses, for their lack of repentance after driving the economy into the ditch, for the bailouts that saved their asses while leaving double-digit unemployment in its wake -- it's going to be hard for Congress, operating under the klieg lights, to ram through the kind of legislation that could straighten things out. Congress is already perceived as being snugly in the pockets of Wall Street. One thing is for certain: NOTHING will happen before the election. This is a live third rail right now.

7. MERS owns more than 60 percent of U.S. mortgages.

I haven't seen anyone sort through the implications of this, but I've seen in the comment sections of blogs, some people sniffing about, sensing the implications. Namely: I make regular mortgage payments, I have great credit, but what if I ask to see my note? What if they can't produce it? Does that then make me foreclosure proof? This will add an interesting element to valuing more than 60% of the mortgages in this country. How much will Joe Investor pay for the right to payments from a mortgage that may be "foreclosure proof"?

So there you have it. Seven reasons why we really need to be paying attention to the mortgage mess. It's hard to overstate how serious it is.

Verdicts on TARP: What I Wish I'd Said

When the authority of TARP recently expired, a predictable flurry of opinions made cases for and against the largest bank bailout Western civilization has ever known. I could weigh in too, but I found someone who expressed my sentiments so well, I'd just like to quote her for a few short paragraphs.

Alice Schroeder was writing in Businessweek about Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett's right-hand man, who rather scornfully told an audience of Michigan college students that we "shouldn't be bitching about a little bailout" of the banks. Munger also said, in a curious application of the second-person pronoun (is he secretly from another civilization? or planet?), that the bailouts were "required to save your civilization." (The phrasing carries the whiff of the moral harangue from the elder who knows best; one imagines gramps pulling his cracked leather belt from his trouser loops and announcing to the youngster about to get a good strappin', "I'm doing this for your own good.")

And this is Schroeder's very intelligent response (my bold):
... the problem is the false dichotomy it presents. The choice wasn't between the bailout or no bailout. It was between the bailout we financed, which didn't resemble capitalism in any known form, and a bailout more intelligently executed.

No one made us bail out shareholders along with the banks' bondholders. We didn't have to preserve institutions that are still too big to fail in any meaningful sense of the term. We could have propped them up temporarily, then recapitalized them as smaller, more manageable entities, with former equity holders assuming the cost of the risk they assumed.

We missed the chance to reduce systemic risk by comprehensively rewriting regulation for the financial-services industry. Instead of withdrawing government guarantees, we increased them. So there are plenty of reasons to complain about the bailouts.