Monday, August 20, 2007

The Sub-Prime Mortgage Chain: Borrower to Investor

Last week's Wall Street Journal carried a detailed example of how sub-prime mortgages originate. I found the story both shocking and heartbreaking. Mostly, though, I found it emblematic of a culture of greed, at every step of the home loan process, from borrowers to investors.

For the full impact of the story, I've reprinted large sections of it below,

The price was a major stretch at $567,000. But the couple, who had sold a home a few years earlier to move to a better area, was tired of renting. Mr. and Mrs. Montes convened a meeting with their two teenage daughters around the kitchen table to hash out the implications. "We agreed we wanted to be homeowners again," says Mr. Montes, "even if it meant the end of vacations and not eating out as often."

Like many people who jumped into the rising housing market in recent years, they had little money for a down payment and chose a loan that would hold their monthly payments down for the first two years, then "reset" to a much higher level. Mr. and Mrs. Montes say their mortgage broker assured them they would be able to refinance in a couple of years to keep their payments affordable.

With a December "reset" on their loan looming, however, the refinancing option now looks impossible. A friend who works as a loan officer called with some bad news this week: Similar homes in their area have been selling for $535,000 to $565,000 recently. That means the Monteses' loan balance may exceed the value of their home.

And with thousands of mortgage banks and brokers threatened with extinction, lenders that embraced all kinds of risky loans two years ago are enforcing increasingly strict standards. They are refusing even to consider extending new credit to people like the Monteses who lack any equity in their homes.

They live in a solid neighborhood and are both employed and in good health. "My wife and I make pretty good money," says Mr. Montes. Mrs. Montes works as a school secretary. Together, they earned nearly $90,000 last year.

But they already pay about $38,400 a year on their home loans, even before taxes and insurance. In December, when their primary loan "resets" to a higher rate, that cost will rise to about $50,000 a year, Mr. Montes says.

When the Monteses decided to buy the bungalow in 2005, they had only a so-so credit record and little savings. So they settled for a "subprime" loan, with costlier terms than those available in the prime market.

The Monteses' primary loan is the type that became the dominant subprime mortgage during the housing boom of the first half of this decade -- and now has become a symbol of misguided lending, swept away by regulatory fiat and investors' flight from mortgages deemed too risky. These loans are known in the trade as 2/28 mortgages. The interest rate is fixed at a relatively low rate for the first two years (5.45% in the Monteses' case), then floats at a predetermined margin above an interest-rate index for the next 28 years. In many cases, that "reset" of the interest rate after two years leads to a monthly payment increase of 30% or more.

U.S. lenders originated about $600 billion of subprime home loans in 2006, or 20% of all home mortgages, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication. About 56% of those subprime loans were 2/28 mortgages, says Keith Ernst, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research and lobbying group in Durham, N.C.

The Montes family got their loan through a mortgage broker in Rancho Cucamonga. Using what was then a common formula, the broker offered to arrange for two loans, one to cover about 80% of the home price and the other, a so-called piggyback loan, for the rest. For the first two years, their total monthly mortgage payments are about $3,200. The loans are initially interest-only.

Mr. Montes recalls feeling edgy about whether he would be able to afford the higher costs -- about $900 more per month -- due to take effect after two years. But he says the broker assured him he could refinance before those costs kicked in.

Mrs. Montes says she was apprehensive about the broker's assurances. "But I blame that on that I don't understand the lingo they were talking," she says. "It's a scary experience.... All I could see was all these numbers flash before me.... I said, 'Mario, I hope you don't get into something that is going to hurt us.'"

The Monteses received a letter informing them their property taxes had been reassessed based on the $567,000 sale price instead of its previous $389,000 value. That raised their taxes to $6,000 from $2,900 a year and would have increased their monthly payments (including the mortgages and taxes) to $3,931.

Mr. Montes says the family may try to sell the house, but that would be tricky in today's weak market. Or they could try to trim other expenses and keep meeting the higher monthly home payments that are due to take effect in December.

There is very little wiggle room. Mr. and Mrs. Montes also have two car loans, with payments totaling about $700 a month, and are borrowing more money to help put their elder daughter through college.

Those are the basic facts.

To me, it was shocking that the Monteses didn't even plan on affording the added cost of their original mortgage after the reset point, being advised by their mortgage broker that they would refinance before then. Not to mention that the wife of the couple confessed to not even understanding the loan document which she would be signing. Yet, this is the most expensive purchase most people will ever make.

Their income was insufficient to make the original mortgage payments even as low as 30% of that base. The article notes that fully 20% of all mortgages in 2006 are now this type, which is surprising to me.

The last time I applied for a mortgage, I kept my total mortgage-related (PITI) payments to 25% of my income, took an ARM with a repricing cap of 2.5 percentage points of interest each five years, and planned on affording it.

What I saw in this article is an example of people who should have waited until they actually had the money for a reasonable down payment, and then should have been more sanguine about their prospects of affording the mortgage they chose. Additionally, they seem gullible, in that they simply believed a mortgage broker's promise that they could refinance the mortgage. Perhaps they should have planned on affording the one for which they applied?

The broker, of course, hardly did anyone a favor by putting the Monteses into a barely-affordable mortgage. The institution which lent the money for the house didn't seem to have done a very careful job stress testing the Montes' ability to afford the mortgage.

Then the loan was likely bundled up into a security. I don't know what the 'seasoning' period is nowadays, but years ago, lenders typically had to hold their mortgage loans for a year, if I'm not mistaken, before other investors would buy them in CMOs.

This story displays a shocking tale of greed and overreaching on everyone's part, including the Monteses. They should never have expected, in their financial position, with other loans to service, to be paying as much as 42% of their income for housing, before taxes and insurance.

It's no wonder that this is the last year of the housing expansion. With loans like these, to borrowers like these, it was clearly time for mortgage merry-go-round to stop. I can't honestly express any sympathy for investors who purchased instruments backed by loans like those of the Montes.'

This was a total lending, underwriting and investing system failure. But it's not a banking failure, per se. Those who bought these loans, packaged as whatever, deserve the losses they take, just as if they had made unwise equity or currency investments.


Keith Gregory said...

The largest single problem with the mortgage industry is summed in in two words:

Fiduciary Responsibility.

This is everything in a nut shell, and the lack of alignment with borrow interests is what caused this entire debacle.

Read more on this blog regarding all the players, and how their interests aren't aligned with the party they serve:

C Neul said...


I don't agree in total. Yes, on the part of the mortgage broker. As for the mortgage originator, it wouldn't be acting as trustee for anyone else.

The investors who bought paper underpinned by the Montes' loan had the opportunity to do due diligence.

So, I see the fiduciary issue as possibly occurring only in the initial step of the transaction.

Otherwise, it's largely greed and hubris.


Donna said...

I don't think that a bailout (or even sympathy) for the subprime borrowers is fair to the rest of us. The people in the story had so-so credit and little savings and wanted to buy a $600,000 house. What about those of us who do without things to save and pay our bills on time? I would like to live in a $600,000 home too, but instead I live in a much less expensive home (with a mortgage of less than 50% of the home's value) and drive a car with 180,000 miles on it. Should my tax dollars be used to help the greedy and irresponsible subprime borrowers?


C Neul said...


I agree with you completely. As I read this WSJ piece, and listened to various pundits and liberal Senators recently, I began to kick myself for lacking the foresight to have bought a $700K home in the last two years with an Alt-A or piggy-back mortgage.

Just teasing. Seriously, though,I am in agreement, as I noted in my post.

These people should have been saving longer, or, per a post I'll write next week, perhaps have eschewed even buying a home at that time.