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Thursday, November 15, 2007

GM Watch: The Flap Continues

by Tanta on 11/15/2007 08:24:00 AM

So there was a pretty breathlessly hyped story on a blog about how the dismissal of a foreclosure filing meant that the entire MBS market is more or less toast. Then there was a tedious attempt by Tanta to sort through it and figure out what the real issue was and perhaps cool down some of the rhetoric. You know what had to happen next. Gretchen Morgenson got ahold of it.

Do read the whole piece. Perhaps I have gone temporarily blind, and there is somewhere in this article an acknowledgement that this story was "broken" on a blog. (Not mine, by the way: I Am Facing "broke" the story. I ignored it as long as I thought I could.) Query: is this where GM has been getting a lot of story juice lately? Could that be why some of her recent reporting, especially on Countrywide, is such a noxious mixture of fact and hype, information and innuendo?

All I know about journalistic practice tells me that if this story had originally been reported in the Podunk Inquirer, GM would have credited the ol' PI in her story. But you can fish in the blogs, it appears, without having to admit it. And without identifying the blog-source of your stories, you avoid having to confront the evaluation problem. There are great blogs and terrible blogs out there. There is carefully gleaned and analyzed information, and there is rumor, garbled gossip, and speculation masquerading as fact. There are people whose agenda and biases are perfectly clearly spelled out, and there are those who are talkin' a book or just shilling. If you want to seine the blogs for NYT material, you have to deal with this problem for yourself and for your readers. Identifying your sources is not simply professional courtesy, it's the beginning of the process of evaluating the source. Yes, I am not a professional reporter and this is a blog and I am lecturing the NYT on Journalism 101. I'm afraid to open the fridge to get milk in case there's a trout in there.

I said most of what I want to say about the issue yesterday. Let me just pause over this one tidbit in GM's article this morning:

When a loan goes into a securitization, the mortgage note is not sent to the trust. Instead it shows up as a data transfer with the physical note being kept at a separate document repository company. Such practices keep the process fast and cheap.
I rail endlessly about mortgage industry practices that are "fast and cheap" and that sacrifice risk management. You all have never heard me complaining about the practice of third-party document custody because it is one of the very few old-fashioned slow expensive risk management processes that the New Paradigm people have not yet managed to do away with. Document custodians are the Nerdiest Nerds there are, and their nerditude is in so many cases the only thing separating the current secondary market from a Wild West clown show. They are the thin red-tape line between us and chaos. I have never met anyone having anything to do with mortgage loans who has not at least once indulged in a major bitch-fest about dealing with some Iron-Fisted Custodian who won't just certify pools or mail notes around or change reports because some punk says to. They want appropriately-signed authorizations. They want Trust Receipts. They want originals, not copies; they want letters, not phone calls. They are, personally and institutionally, the kind of people who count the teaspoons after the dinner party guests leave.

And it costs money to use document custodians, who are, if you want to know, required to be financial institutions with a trust department that has direct authorization from its regulator to offer trust services. That does not make them perfect, but to call them "document repository companies" may give you all the impression that we're dealing with some fly-by-night Docs R Us outfit. I don't have exact numbers handy, but I would guess off the top of my head that after Fannie and Freddie, who are the custodians of most but not all of their own notes and mortgages, the single largest concentration of custody docs in this country is probably Wells Fargo. (I invite correction if I'm wrong about that.) Like anyone else who has ever certified pools, I've visited Wells's custodial operations center. I don't remember having to take my shoes off and put them in a basket before they let me in, but then again it was several years ago. At the time, Well's security was better than most airports'.

It has to be. Not only do they hold the documents collateralizing trillions of dollars of debt that belongs to someone else, but they do, in fact, hold those notes I was talking about yesterday that are endorsed in blank. Such a thing is rather more secure than a simple bearer bond, but not by much.

In the case of the DB foreclosure suit dismissal we looked at yesterday, there should have been a set of original notes and original recordable-form (but possibly not actually recorded) assignments of mortgage in the physical custody of a document custodian when DB went to file its FC action. It should therefore have been a matter of DB requesting the pertinent docs from the custodian, who would send them to DB's legal people in order to prepare the filing. Either this did not happen, or the custodian lost the docs, or DB lost the docs, or the docs were never there in the first place. If that last part is true, I want to know how a custodian certified those pools at issuance. If the custodian certified the pools on condition that some missing assignments get turned in later, then when and how did the custodian follow up on that? This is Deal, Big.

It is, mind you, possible that DB is acting as its own custodian. It's a bank, it has a trust department, it qualifies as a custodian. And if DB is acting as its own custodian, and certifying pools without having its hot little hands on the docs first, or it is misplacing those docs it had when it certified the pool to start with, then that, my friends, is a Story. It is a story that Deutsche Bank's regulators might be really really interested in. I know I am.

But this story will not get written by anyone who misunderstands what custodians are, how much they cost (real fee dollars), and how they are supposed to act like the Gatekeepers and SuperNerds of the whole process. In other words, they are supposed to be a check against "fast and cheap," not part of "fast and cheap."