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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Clockwork Mortgages, Again

by Tanta on 1/31/2008 12:26:00 PM

So far at least a dozen people have emailed me the link to Jonathan Weil's latest egregiousness in Bloomberg. I have no idea how many times it has come up in the comments. My response?

What P.J. said.

Weil's whole argument rests on the original assumption that pools of mortgage loans can be "wind-up toys" or "brain dead" from a servicing perspective. The reality is that they cannot, they are not, and anyone who pretended otherwise was an idiot (I'm lookin' at you, Wall Street). The prohibition on actively managed pools is there to prevent the issuer or servicer from buying and selling loans in and out of the trust and passing through gain-on-sale to investors while calling it "interest income," or securitizing loans with "putback" provisions that mean the issuer can repurchase loans out of the pools whenever it wants to at a price that is below market in order to take advantage of the bondholders. It was never and is not a prohibition on servicing mortgage loans. That is, in fact, what the SEC just said.

There is and has always been the recognition that mortgage loans, unlike, say, Treasury notes, need to be "serviced." There are therefore long and involved servicing agreements and absolutely not trivial servicing fees specified in all these deals. A couple minutes' worth of reflection would lead you to this: perhaps there is a debate about where you cross the line between servicing a pool and managing it. That would be a debate about when "loss mitigation" (working out a loan in order to minimize loss when loss is inevitable) becomes "loss creation" (a servicer creating a loss to the investor in order to increase servicing income or something like that). But to have that debate you'd have to accept that real loss mitigation is acceptable, and you'd have to look at more facts than just the presence of workouts as such. Such a debate doesn't have jack to do with the SEC handing out "accounting favors" to anyone.

I simply hope that someday Weil wants to drop escrows or make a curtailment and get a payment recast or deed off an easement or something on his home mortgage and he calls his servicer and the servicer says, "Sorry, dood. You're brain dead to us. All we do is collect your payment. Have a nice day. Click."

Maybe that has already happened to him, and it's making him bitter. Beats me. All I know is that a bunch of geniuses on Wall Street did, actually, fall for the idea that residential home mortgages were "wind-up toys," just "asset classes" instead of messy complicated things that involve real people (good, bad, and indifferent, lucky and unlucky, high-maintenance and low-maintenance) on the other side of the cash flow, who don't always behave the way your models said they would. And here we are. Demanding that we continue the delusion in order to make the accounting work out is mind-boggling. Demanding that issuers take it all back onto their balance sheets as punishment for trying to mitigate losses to bondholders is beyond perverse.