Monday, July 02, 2007

Bloomberg: The Backyard Possum Theory of Financial Markets

by Tanta on 7/02/2007 10:00:00 AM

This may not be the most hysterical article ever to appear on the subject of the subprime mortgage market, but it is certainly the most hysterical one I've yet seen on Bloomberg. Please note that I am using the term "hysterical" here in the clinical sense, not the ha-ha-funny sense. "Bear Stearns Meets Possums in Georgia as Foreclosures Increase." That's the headline.

And how did them city slickers at Bear Stearns become acquainted with southern varmints?

July 2 (Bloomberg) -- Only the possums are enjoying the backyard of 2035 Lilac Lane in Decatur, Georgia, where Wall Street titan Bear Stearns Cos. is just another homeowner by default. . . .

Bear Stearns took possession of the three-bedroom Lilac Lane house for $76,500 on March 6, according to the foreclosure deed. The owner who defaulted had purchased the house in April 2005 for $160,000 using a subprime loan that required no money down. He had been renting it out, according to the neighbor, Ford.

The lender was Meritage Mortgage Corp., one of more than 60 subprime home loan companies that have halted operations, gone bankrupt or sought buyers since the start of 2006, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Bear Stearns had bought the mortgage from Meritage at a discount.

The firm sold the Lilac Lane house on June 28 for $84,000, said Elisa Marks, a Bear Stearns spokeswoman. That's about half the price paid two years ago. Other homes on the street sold this year for $85,000 to $185,000, according to public records.

The house's condition deteriorated while it was a rental property, Ford said. Being empty for six months only made it worse to the extent that possums had the run of the backyard, she said. . . .

Home values and the $6 trillion U.S. mortgage-backed securities market are locked in a downward spiral. Bear Stearns is bailing out one money-losing hedge fund it controls and leaving another to liquidation by creditors. Both funds invested in securities backed by subprime loans. The loans, for borrowers with bad or limited credit histories, are secured by houses such as the one on Lilac Lane. . . .

Conditions are the worst since the 1990-1991 recession, which was caused by a credit crunch that followed a boom-bust real estate cycle similar to the last seven years, Gumbinger said. Like the 2000 to 2005 boom, the previous surge in sales and prices was sparked by a decline in mortgage rates, and featured ``risky mortgage lending,'' he said.

The whole article is one of the strangest combinations of fact, hype, oversimplification and just weirdness that I've seen in a long time in the "respectable press." Look, I grew up in a part of the country in which having occasional possums--not to mention raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs and, if you lived close enough to the river, the odd muskrat--in the backyard was considered, um, neither surprising nor particularly subprime. Am I imagining things, or are we beginning to see this "subprime contaigon" metaphor work itself into something a bit panicky?