Monday, January 07, 2008

A Rolling Loan Gathers No Loss

by Tanta on 1/07/2008 10:12:00 AM

And when the music stops, everyone has to sit down. Ours is a cliché business, but then again there may be some new life in the old saws at the ignominious ending of a "New Paradigm."

American Banker has an interesting piece out on troubles in mortgage servicing land (subscription only, alas):

In recent weeks problems at servicing units contributed to profit warnings by First Horizon National Corp. and Regions Financial Corp. If such hits were to develop into a full-blown trend, it might undermine the conventional wisdom on the inherent hedging that servicing provides originators, and it could cool some of the acquisition interest that servicers have continued to enjoy. . . .

On average, servicers are paid a fee of about 50 basis points annually for subprime loans in securitizations, Mr. Sepci said. "Traditionally in an adequately performing credit market, like 2004 or 2003 or even 2005," that rate "basically was fair and adequate compensation," but in the current environment, "for a lot of participants … maybe it's not enough."

For instance, "when you modify a loan, and you contact a borrower, basically re-underwrite the loan, and work with them through their issues, you're incurring costs of anywhere from $700 to $1,000 dollars per interaction," he said.

In addition to advancing principal and interest, servicers also typically are required to cover a variety of costs during foreclosure, though eventually they are reimbursed.

"The advances are going up in general, and for nonbanks, financing those advances has become more difficult and more expensive," said Jeffrey M. Levine, a managing partner with Milestone Advisors LLC of Washington. . . .

However, some observers said that rising servicer expenses have been counterbalanced by slower prepayments and late fees, and that much depends on the individual characteristics of the servicing portfolio and the servicer's capacities.

Delinquencies "can be very profitable for the servicer," said Charles N. McQueen, the president of McQueen Financial Advisors, a Royal Oak, Mich., investment advisory firm that performs mortgage servicing valuations. "It should work that way if you're a large enough servicer, due to economies of scale — your fees more than cover your expenses."

Mr. Levine said that it would be "fair to say" that servicing costs are increasing, "but in terms of the overall economic picture, you'd be telling an incomplete story if you felt that was just net negative on the value of servicing."

For example, a slowdown in prepayments and a revenue boost from late fees act as counterweights, he said.

But Mr. Sepci said late fees may not be enough.

"On average, late fees are approximately 10 basis points," he said, but those fees, even when combined with the standard 50-basis-point servicing rate, would not cover what some servicers are asking to take on some very high-delinquency portfolios.

And slowing prepayments also may have negative consequences for servicers.

The slowdown may be "contributing to the higher delinquencies as more accounts have a higher probability of default now, and therefore higher cost," said John Panion, a senior manager in KPMG's financial risk management practice.
I remain amused by the idea that 50 bps for subprime servicing is adequate in an "adequately performing credit market, like 2004 or 2003 or even 2005." If the height of an unprecedented boom is "adequate" for existing subprime servicing valuations, then you have a serious mispricing problem on your hands.

This does point to what I have always considered the basic function of the "Hope Now" teaser-freezer plan, with its distressing provisions for doing "streamlined" modifications. It has always been about servicers not being in any position to absorb the costs of responsible processing of workouts. If you don't really underwrite it up front, you have to really underwrite it in back, but apparently that's a challenge on 50 bps servicing. So the next big problem is going to be writing down the value of those MSRs (servicing rights as an asset on the balance sheet) if and when we blow through that relatively small number of mortgagors who qualify for the "streamlined" workout and get to the ones who will really eat operating expense.

Similarly, while 10 bps in late fees sounds like a lot (at least, it does to old prime lenders like me), one begins to suspect that late fee income, also, was calculated based on the kinds of collection costs you had in that "adequate" market of 2003-2005.

We're certainly seeing an interesting shift in assumptions here regarding prepayments. Historically, slowing prepayments have always been good for servicers, and that's why a servicing portfolio was always a "counter-cyclical" hedge for your origination platform: the lack of new refinance and purchase transaction income on the front end is made up for in longer loan life on the back end, and because so much of the cost to service a loan is front-loaded, and because new mortgage loans amortize pretty slowly, the longer it stays on the books the more money you make.

That conventional wisdom is being challenged by the fact that 2003-2005 might have been "adequate," but only because short loan lives (rapid prepayment) masked inadequate credit quality to the extent that servicers staffed themselves for acquisition and payoff processing--much cheaper operations than delinquent and default servicing--and prepared to greet a slowing prepayment environment with the usual cheerfulness of servicers. That cheerfulness wears off when extended loan lives produce not net servicing fee income but overwhelming collections, workout, and foreclosure costs.

Finally, we need to remember that servicer advances are one side of the coin, and float is the other. Servicers collect principal and interest payments for performing loans on and around the first of the month, but do not usually remit to the investor until around the 20th-25th. Advances have borrowing costs, too. So what's the value of the float on however many performing subprime loans we still have left? You'd have to ask Dr. Bernanke . . .

(Hat tip, Clyde!)