Why you can’t use eminent domain to buy performing mortgages

By Felix Salmon
July 9, 2012
looked at the plan from Mortgage Resolution Partners to use eminent domain to buy up underwater mortgages. I wasn't very impressed, and now that the dust has settled a bit, it increasingly looks as though the scheme -- at least as currently designed -- is going to end up going nowhere.

" data-share-img="" data-share="twitter,facebook,linkedin,reddit,google" data-share-count="true">

Back on June 21, I looked at the plan from Mortgage Resolution Partners to use eminent domain to buy up underwater mortgages. I wasn’t very impressed, and now that the dust has settled a bit, it increasingly looks as though the scheme — at least as currently designed — is going to end up going nowhere.

San Bernadino, which seemed to be very interested in the idea originally, is now backpedalling:

“We see it as intriguing, but it’s definitely not something we’ve decided to do,” says San Bernardino spokesman David Wert. “We just wanted to get all the information and see if it might actually work.”

And most importantly, a grand coalition of powerful interest groups has released a strong broadside saying that MRP’s plan is a really bad one. Check out some of the names here: The American Bankers Association, the American Securitization Forum, the Association of Mortgage Investors, the California Bankers Association, the Community Mortgage Banking Project, the Mortgage Bankers Association, Sifma, the Financial Services Roundtable — it’s an impressive list, and at this point it’s pretty much impossible to find any institution which supports the idea, other than those directly involved.

The letter from the various interest groups does not, in truth, make particularly compelling arguments. For instance:

If eminent domain were used to seize loans, investors in these loans through mortgage-backed securities or their investment portfolio would suffer immediate losses and likely be reluctant to provide future funding to borrowers in these areas.

This is pretty silly stuff: the fact is that nearly all new mortgages in San Bernadino and across the country are being financed by the government, and insofar as there is a little bit of private-sector financing, it’s probably not coming from people who bought subprime CDOs at the height of the bubble.

But really the point of the letter isn’t to make an argument: it’s to make a point. Two points, really. Firstly, there’s the word “unconstitutional”, which appears very high up. That’s code for “we’re going to appeal this thing all the way to the Supreme Court, so you’d better be willing and able to spend an enormous amount on legal fees.”

And secondly, the letter sends a very clear message that CDO investors are not on board with this scheme. And that’s the thing which ultimately will result in its death.

In principle, a plan like this could be put together in a way that investors could get behind. But it wasn’t, and MRP got greedy, and as a result it’s not gaining traction: just this morning, for instance, the LA Times came out against it.

The problem, at heart, is that MRP is looking to buy up only seasoned, performing mortgages: precisely the ones which are worth the most money, and which don’t present much of a systemic danger to the San Bernadino housing market. We’re talking here about loans which were made during the height of the bubble, on homes which have since plunged in value — and yet the homeowners have diligently made all of their payments on time. If I’m a mortgage investor holding a portfolio of mortgage loans, these are the ones I love — they’re the ones which help to offset the fact that so many of my other loans are in default. Yes, it’s true that I will have written down the value of my holdings on the grounds that my mortgages aren’t worth as much, in aggregate, as they were during the bubble. But that doesn’t mean that I’m valuing the performing loans at deeply-discounted rates. Quite the opposite, in fact: many of them are worth more than par, trading at about 106 cents on the dollar, just because the interest rates are high and the underwater status of the loan means that it can’t be refinanced.

MRP, by contrast, wants to pay vastly less than par for these loans. To use Kathleen Pender’s example, where a homeowner owes $300,000 on a house now worth $200,000, MRP might pay $170,000 for the loan. Which works out at just 57 cents on the dollar. That’s a highly-distressed price for a performing asset, and I can definitely see that MRP would have a huge amount of difficulty persuading the court that it was a fair price. After all, the only way you get to such a price is by assuming that there’s an extremely high probability of future default — despite the fact that the homeowner has remained current through the largest financial and housing crisis in living memory.

There’s a very big collective action problem in the distressed-mortgage world, and in principle the use of eminent domain is just what the doctor ordered to sort it all out. But I fear that MRP has done everybody a disservice here by putting forward the worst possible use of eminent domain: basically buying up precisely the mortgages which no one is particularly worried about. What’s desperately needed here is a plan which CDO investors can get behind. Right now, they own many mortgages they’d love to get out of, but instead they’re holding on to them because the way that the CDOs are structured, they basically can’t be sold and have to be serviced instead, at significant expense, even when they’re deeply in default.

So let’s see an eminent-domain plan which is designed to buy up defaulted properties, rather than ones which are current on their mortgages. Let’s see a plan which buys properties themselves, rather than just the liens on those properties. And most importantly, let’s see a plan which is constructed by the owners of CDOs, rather than by a bunch of outside financiers looking for a huge profit opportunity. In principle, there’s a way to do this right. It just isn’t the MRP way.

7 comments

Comments are closed.