1) WSJ on leading subprime lender New Century and how its bankruptcy was driven by decisions on Wall St. by firms like Citi, JP Morgan and Merrill that both lend to mortgage issuers and repackage their loans for resale as CMOs.
2) The Economist's remarkably sanguine summary of the situation. (Some useful excerpts below -- the first hard analysis numbers I've yet seen.)
America's residential mortgage market is huge. It consists of some $10 trillion worth of loans, of which around 75% are repackaged into securities, mainly by the government-sponsored mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Most of this market involves little risk. Two-thirds of mortgage borrowers enjoy good credit and a fixed interest rate and can depend on the value of their houses remaining far higher than their borrowings. But a growing minority of loans look very different, with weak borrowers, adjustable rates and little, or no, cushion of home equity.
For a decade, the fastest growth in America's mortgage markets has been at the bottom. Subprime borrowers—long shut out of home ownership—now account for one in five new mortgages and 10% of all mortgage debt, thanks to the expansion of mortgage-backed securities (and derivatives based on them). Low short-term interest rates earlier this decade led to a bonanza in adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs). Ever more exotic products were dreamt up, including “teaser” loans with an introductory period of interest rates as low as 1%.
When the housing market began to slow, lenders pepped up the pace of sales by dramatically loosening credit standards, lending more against each property and cutting the need for documentation. Wall Street cheered them on. Investors were hungry for high-yielding assets and banks and brokers could earn fat fees by pooling and slicing the risks in these loans.
Standards fell furthest at the bottom of the credit ladder: subprime mortgages and those one rung higher, known as Alt-As. A recent report by analysts at Credit Suisse estimates that 80% of subprime loans made in 2006 included low “teaser” rates; almost eight out of ten Alt-A loans were “liar loans”, based on little or no documentation; loan-to-value ratios were often over 90% with a second piggy-bank loan routinely thrown in. America's weakest borrowers, in short, were often able to buy a house without handing over a penny.
Lenders got the demand for loans that they wanted—and more fool them. Amid the continuing boom, some 40% of all originations last year were subprime or Alt-A. But as these mortgages were reset to higher rates and borrowers who had lied about their income failed to pay up, the trap was sprung. A new study by Christopher Cagan, an economist at First American CoreLogic, based on his firm's database of most American mortgages, calculates that 60% of all adjustable-rate loans made since 2004 will be reset to payments that will be 25% higher or more. A fifth will see monthly payments soar by 50% or more.
...Mr Cagan marries the statistics and concludes that—going by today's prices—some 1.1m mortgages (or 13% of all adjustable-rate mortgages originated between 2004 and 2006), worth $326 billion, are heading for repossession in the next few years. The suffering will be concentrated: only 7% of mainstream adjustable mortgages will be affected, whereas one in three of the recent “teaser” loans will end in default. The harshest year will be 2008, when many mortgages will be reset and few borrowers will have much equity.
Mr Cagan's study considers only the effect of higher payments (ignoring defaults from job loss, divorce, and so on). But it is a guide to how much default rates may worsen even if the economy stays strong and house prices stabilise. According to RealtyTrac, some 1.3m homes were in default on their mortgages in 2006, up 42% from the year before. This study suggests that figure could rise much further. And if house prices fall, the picture darkens. Mr Cagan's work suggests that every percentage point drop in house prices would bring 70,000 extra repossessions.
The direct damage to Wall Street is likely to be modest. A repossessed property will eventually be sold, albeit at a discount. As a result, Mr Cagan's estimate of $326 billion of repossessed mortgages translates into roughly $112 billion of losses, spread over several years. Even a loss several times larger than that would barely ruffle America's vast financial markets: about $600 billion was wiped out on the stockmarkets as share prices fell on February 27th.
In theory, the chopping up and selling on of risk should spread the pain. The losses ought to be manageable even for banks such as HSBC and Wells Fargo, the two biggest subprime mortgage lenders, and Bear Stearns, Wall Street's largest underwriter of mortgage-backed securities. Subprime mortgages make up only a small part of their business. Indeed, banks so far smell an opportunity to buy the assets of imploding subprime lenders on the cheap.
Some open questions (experts please help!):
1) Effect on housing bubble: how much of the recent bubble was driven specifically by increased availability of credit (as opposed to the usual irrational exuberance or speculation)?
2) How much of bad mortgage debt is insured by CDO derivatives? Who is on the hook? Selling this kind of insurance was reportedly a popular income strategy for hedge funds.
3) Is $100B of mortgage-related losses over several years a big number or a small one? Will anyone blow up (CMO insurers)? Who is holding the riskiest CMO tranches?
4) If $100B over several years is chump change, what are the chances of contagion still leading to a housing bust, credit crunch and recession?
Earnings of big Wall St. banks will be negatively impacted, but some smart guys are surely buying up these loans on the cheap, as markets overreact in the negative direction.