Unstructured Finance

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.

On Wednesday, the city of North Las Vegas, a community with one of the highest percentage of underwater mortgages in the U.S., became the latest community to move a step closer to using eminent domain to condemn troubled mortgages that are packaged into mortgage-backed bonds issued by Wall Street firms before the financial crisis. By a 4-1 vote, the City Council agreed to enter into an advisory agreement with Mortgage Resolution Partners, the San Francisco-based investment firm that has been peddling the eminent domain for more than a year and stands to make money off of each home loan that gets seized and restructured.

North Las Vegas, a community of 219,020, located less than 10 miles from the glitz and glamour of the  Vegas strip, is one of those places that was particularly hard hit by the financial crisis and the housing bust. In some neighborhoods in North Las Vegas, 70 percent of homeowners not in foreclosure were under water on their mortgages, according to RealtyTrac.

The retailization of the single family home rental play

By Matthew Goldstein

It started slowly but the push by Wall Street into the single family rental market is fast becoming a Main Street play as well.

Last year, one of the big stories on Wall Street and in the U.S. housing market was the push by institutional investors to raise billions of dollars to snap-up foreclosed homes and rent them out while waiting for the right time to sell them. It’s become the biggest “long” bet on housing for private equity giants like Blackstone, which has already spent close to $3 billion buying up more than 16,000 foreclosed homes.

And with Wall Street firms all projecting they can get an 8% return from renting out the the homes they acquire, the foreclosed home market has become a great yield play for yield-starved wealthy investors.

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.

Some Hedge Funds Throwing in Keys as “Landlords”

By Matthew Goldstein and Jennifer Ablan

All year the big money has been talking up one of the more intriguing trades to emerge from the housing crisis: buying up foreclosed homes in large scale and rent those out for several years and then unload them when the price is right. But questions about the so-called rent-to-own trade are being raised now that an early mover in the space, hedge fund giant Och-Ziff Capital, is looking to cash in its chips now and is abandoning the idea of operating foreclosed homes as rental properties for years to come.

Now we’re not quite ready to declare the foreclosed home rent-to-own trade is dead as the tireless, prolific financial bloggers at ZeroHedge did in a good riff on our exclusive story on Och-Ziff’s decision. But Daniel Och’s concern that the income to be generated from renting out foreclosed homes may not be as high as originally anticipated bears close scrutiny because it could spell trouble for other hedge funds, private equity firms and smaller money managers counting on rental income to generate an annual 8 pct or greater return on investment.

Way back in March, when we first wrote about all the big money that was racing into the foreclosed home market, we noted that some were concerned that a lot of the newer entrants might not really up to the challenge of managing and renting single-family homes for the long haul. Historically, the business of buying, rehabbing and renting foreclosed homes has been a mom-and-pop endeavor, conducted by people with strong community roots. The skeptics wondered whether institutional players were too blinded by the potential to capture yield and overlooking the challenges that comes with bringing often vacant foreclosed homes up  to code and habitable conditions.

FHFA is not on an REO speed wagon when it comes to full disclosure

By Matthew Goldstein

The FHFA continues to reveal as little as possible about its pilot project of selling foreclosed homes to private investors in bulk sales.

With surprisingly little fanfare, the Federal Housing Agency announced this week that Pacifica Companies, a little-known San Diego investment firm, is the first company to emerge as the winner in the pilot project. Pacifica is buying 699 single-family homes that are part of Fannie Mae’s REO portfolio in Florida.

In the coming weeks, FHFA says it will announce the winning bids for bulks sales of REO homes in California, Arizona and Illinois as part of the much-hyped pilot project to sell 2,500 foreclosed homes. The agency that regulates Fannie and Freddie Mac says there will be no winning bid for some 541 homes it was planning to sell in Atlanta. The agency didn’t offer an explanation.

UF Weekend Reads

Two weeks of speechifying by the Dems and Reps has come to an end. Well not really–but the conventions are over. And for all the talk, there is one issue that got short-shrift–a solution to the nation’s still unfolding housing crisis.

Oh sure, there was talk about foreclosures and people struggling to pay the mortgages on their homes, but not a lot time for potential solutions.  And that’s unfortunate because as has been noted many times before, it’s going to be hard for the U.S. economy to take off as long as too many consumers are being crushed by mortgage debts they can barely afford.

Indeed, the disappointing August jobs report is a sober reminder of just how much work remains to get the economy humming again.  As we’ve said many times before on U,F it all still comes down to fixing housing, housing housing.

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:

Libore? The real scandal is still CDOs

By Matthew Goldstein

There is an opaque financial market where pricing is determined by a cadre of Wall Street banks and private emails show that behind the scenes  many in the market don’t even believe in what they are doing.

The Libor price fixing scandal?  Sure. But what I’m talking about here is the market for the CDOs, which at the end of the day you can still argue did more harm to the world financial system than the allegations now emerging from the Libor scandal.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not defending the apparent misconduct by bankers to manipulate Libor, a benchmark interest rate for lots of commercial and leveraged loans. But it’s still not clear just what the big harm was in the Libor scandal.

Bank of Asbestos

By Matthew Goldstein

All too much of what we do in financial journalism is rush around to get the “scoop” on some big announcement by some corporate chieftain. Things like, the announcement of a new product, a management reshuffling or a bunch of firings. All important stuff and all stuff that could impact earnings and stock movements. But sometimes the big picture of what really is working for a company or is ailing it, gets lost in the scoop chase.

So that’s why we took a step back to look at some potentially radical solutions for fixing Bank of America, which right now has come to represent much of what remains broken with the U.S. housing market.

The point of the story was to look at ideas that bank CEO Brian Moynihan might be reluctant to do. Ideas that would drive shareholders and bondholders batty. But the kind of ideas that ultimately may be necessary to not only fix the bank, but also repair the nation’s sick housing market and equally sick economy.

  •