Unstructured Finance

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.

In other words, the Fed’s efforts to buy up agency mortgage debt to keep rates low has done little to provide relief to borrowers whose loans are packed in private mortgage securities and they owe more money on their loans than their homes are worth. These borrowers have not been able to take advantage of record low mortgage rates, even as many of the private label bonds their loans are bundled into have soured in value.

As my colleagues  Samuel Forgione and Katya Wachtel have pointed out that’s been good news for investors in private mortgage bonds, including hedge funds, especially mortgage funds, but not so much for the actual borrowers.

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.

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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