Unstructured Finance

The nine lives of the eminent domain for mortgages debate

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

Law professor Bob Hockett, widely credited with popularizing the idea of using eminent domain to restructure underwater mortgages, says he continues to be approached by yield-hungry angel investors looking for a way to help out struggling homeowners and make money at the same time.

He said an increasing number of wealthy investors on “both coasts” regularly reach out to him to get more information about how eminent domain would work and get a better read on “the prospects of municipalities adopting one or another variance of the plan.”

Hockett also is continuing to advise local officials in a variety of cities including some in New Jersey and New York (Irvington, N.J. and Yonkers, N.Y. for instance) on how they might use eminent domain to condemn, seize and restructure deeply underwater mortgages for homeowners determined to keep-up with their high monthly mortgage payments.

Local officials continue to consider the idea of eminent domain even after it ultimately was rejected in San Bernardino County, Calif., North Las Vegas and banks and bond investors sued Richmond, Calif., the municipality that is furthest along the path to condemning underwater mortgages. The lawsuit against Richmond was dismissed by a federal judge as being premature because the California city merely has said it is considering eminent domain but has yet to actually condemn any home loans.

The lawsuits, however, were something of a warning shot to local officials in Richmond and elsewhere that Wall Street will fight like tooth and nail against the plan that would effectively give municipalities the powers to rewrite mortgages and in the process reduce the value of the bonds the loans were packaged into it.

The housing proposal that won’t die

One of the biggest economic stories this year has been the recovery in U.S. home prices. But for the more than 11 million homeowners stuck with a mortgage that’s worth more than the value of their home, it has felt more like being Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.

The housing crisis may be over for Blackstone, Colony, American Homes 4 Rent and other deep-pocketed investment firms snapping up foreclosed homes with cheap money courtesy of the Federal Reserve, but for many Americans they are still living with it some five years later.

So maybe that’s why  a controversial idea of using the government’s power of condemnation to seize and restructure distressed mortgages in order to provide debt relief to struggling homeowners  just won’t go away, even though many think it’s unconstitutional and bond investors have rallied to savage the proposal.

One more try at the Great Refi

By Matthew Goldstein

Don’t be surprised if President Obama includes a line or two in his State of Union address this evening about the need for a plan to allow millions of struggling homeowners whose mortgages are packaged into so-called private label mortgage-backed securities to get a chance to either refinance their loans or restructure them.

The Washington Post is reporting today that mortgage refinancing may be one of the laundry list of items Obama will talk about tonight. And for several months now, investors in private mortgage-securities–deals issued by Wall Street banks and financial firms and not guaranteed by Fannie or Freddie–have been quietly bracing for the Obama administration to move forward with a new refinancing effort.

Up until now, the federal government’s main attempts at trying to help homeowners take advantage of the Federal Reserve’s efforts to keep pushing interest rates to zero has been to prod banks and mortgage servicers to refinance home loans held in so-called agency debt guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. But programs like HAMP and HARP have provided little relief to the millions of homeowners whose loans are held in private label securities.

Talking straight with money managers, policy makers and econ gurus

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

We may not be TV people but there’s something to be said for just sitting down and doing a video interview to discuss the big issues of the day. And that’s just what we did as part of this year’s Reuters Investment Outlook Summit and it’s something we hope to keep doing as  a regular feature going forward into the new year.

In advance of this year’s summit, we did videos with noted short-seller Carson Block, bond guru Dan Fuss, OWS bank leader Cathy O’Neill, FBI heads April Brooks and David Chaves, Avenue Capital’s Marc Lasry, economist Henry Kaufman and Steven Gluckstern of eminent domain fame. The videos were frank discussions and to make them seem more natural we went outside the environs of our Reuters newsroom in NYC and conducted them in places like the  middle of Times Square, an ice ream shop and a park.

But best of all these videos broke some news. For instance, we learned the FBI is now using Twitter as an investigative tool and that Carson Block is thinking about starting a short only hedge fund.

Eminent domain or principal reductions, the bottom line is reducing mortgage debt

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

It’s been almost six months since we first reported on the plan by Mortgage Resolution Partners to find a community willing to use eminent domain to condemn and restructure underwater mortgages and pay a handsome fee to the private investment group for overseeing this process. The proposal has generated a lot interest, debate and heat, but so far  no community is yet willing to go down this road.

Still, Steven Gluckstern, chief executive of the San Francisco-based group, said he’s confident that by early next year some community–most likely one in California–will go forward with the idea of condemning underwater mortgages and rewriting them so cash-strapped homeowners can afford the payments and stay in their homes.

But Gluckstern, in an interview with ReutersTV as part of the Reuters Investment 2013 Outlook Summit, was also a bit realistic and said if nothing gets done in the first-half of next year it may be time for his group to pack it in. In the interview, Gluckstern said he and his investors were a little taken aback by the organized opposition from investors in mortgage-backed securities, who would take a financial hit in any condemnation proceeding.

UF Weekend Reads

So it appears Uncle Ben a/k/a Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke finally gets it:  to fix the U.S. economy, you need to fix housing. The trouble is the Fed’s remedy of buying $40 billion worth of mortgage backed securities each month may  not do the trick.

Bernanke argues that buying MBS will push mortgage rates even lower–something that will spur loan refinancings and make it easier for people to buy a home. He believes a rush of new home buying will spur home construction and create job, jobs, jobs.

It sounds good. But the problem is the housing market is not suffering from high interest rates. With the 30-year mortgage rate already down to around 3.65 %, it’s not interest rates that’s keeping the housing market from taking off. Two years after the recession officially ended, far too many homeowners are still weighed down by debt–especially mortgage debt.

Will FHFA opposition to principal reductions boost eminent domain efforts?

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

There’s nothing surprising about FHFA head Ed DeMarco’s decision to nix the idea of writing down some of the debt owed by cash-strapped homeowners on mortgages guaranteed by Fannie and Freddie. DeMarco, whose agency regulates Fannie and Freddie, has been a consistent opponent of principal reductions–something we pointed out last October in our story on the need for a “great haircut” on consumer loans and including student and mortgage debt to stimulate the economy.

But DeMarco’s renewed opposition comes at a time that there is a growing consensus that something needs to be done on the housing front to get the U.S. economy going, as opposed to simply churning along at the current anemic rate of growth. More and more economists are saying that reducing mortgage debt will not only reduce foreclosures, it will give ordinary Americans more money to spend on goods and services.

It doesn’t take an MBA from Harvard to know that when people have spending power it translates into more demand and that usually prompts employers to hire more people to fill that demand.

Eminent Domain reader

Jenn Ablan and I have done a lot reporting on Mortgage Resolution Partners’ plan to get county governments and cities to use eminent domain to seize and restructure underwater mortgages. As we’ve reported, it’s an intriguing solution to the seemingly intractable problem of too much mortgage debt holding back the U.S. economy. But it’s also a controversial one that threatens to rewrite basic contractual rights and the whole notion of how we view mortgages in this country.

And then there’s the issue of just who are are the financiers behind Mortgage Resolution Partners and whether they’ve gone about selling their plan in the right way.

The debate over using eminent domain has sparked a lively debate on editorial pages, on blogs and in other media, and that debate is likely to continue now that Suffolk County, NY says it is looking at eminent domain just like San Bernardino County, Calif.  So here’s a bit of sampler of some of the differing views and coverage on this important topic:

The eminent domain brush fire

By Matthew Goldstein

It didn’t take long for the powerful voices on Wall Street to rise up in protest over an intriguing and controversial idea to condemn distressed mortgages through local government’s power of eminent domain.

Two weeks after Jenn Ablan and I first reported that officials in San Bernardino County, Calif. were giving serious consideration to the novel idea being pushed by financier-backed Mortgage Resolution Partners, 18 financial trade groups are voicing strong objections. The groups, led by the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, are concerned that if local governments can seize underwater mortgages it might discourage bank lending. Why? The argument is that if it can happen now, who knows when local governments might move to condemn mortgages again–crisis or not.

The unified opposition may make it difficult for Mortgage Resolution Partners, which says it is talking to public officials in Nevada, Florida and on Capitol Hill, to get much traction for its plan outside of San Bernardino. And if San Bernardino County goes forward with using private money to buy-up underwater mortgages held by banks and in mortgage-backed securities, a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit challenging the legality of the measure seems more than likely.

Eminent domain for underwater mortgages could have biggest impact on banks

By Matthew Goldstein

A controversial idea of using the power of eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages may hurt some of the nation’s biggest banks more than investors in mortgage-backed securities.

The reason is the process of condemning a mortgage in which a borrower owes more money than their homes are worth will likely result in a seizure of any home equity loan–or second lien–on that property as well. And that could spell trouble for many U.S. banks, which at the end of the first quarter had $700 billion in second liens on their books, according to SNL Financial.

The trouble is that analysts say many banks have not adequately reserved against losses on those second liens or taken write-downs to reflect the impairment in value on the underlying mortgages. So an outright seizure of those second liens by a local governments could result in unexpected losses for the banks.

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