Sunday, January 13, 2008

Inquiry Focuses on Withholding of Data on Loans

An investigation into the mortgage crisis by New York State prosecutors is now focusing on whether Wall Street banks withheld crucial information about the risks posed by investments linked to subprime loans.

Reports commissioned by the banks raised red flags about high-risk loans known as exceptions, which failed to meet even the lax credit standards of subprime mortgage companies and the Wall Street firms. But the banks did not disclose the details of these reports to credit-rating agencies or investors. The inquiry, which was opened last summer by New York’s attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, centers on how the banks bundled billions of dollars of exception loans and other subprime debt into complex mortgage investments, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Charges could be filed in coming weeks.

It is unclear how much of the $1 trillion subprime mortgage market is composed of exception loans. Some industry officials say such loans made up a quarter to a half of the portfolios they saw. In some cases, the loans accounted for as much as 80 percent. While exception loans are more likely to default than ordinary subprime loans, it is difficult to know how many of these loans have soured because banks disclose little information about them, officials say.

Wall Street banks bought many of the exception loans from subprime lenders, mixed them with other mortgages and pooled the resulting debt into securities for sale to investors around the world.

The banks also did not disclose how many [or how much] exception loans were backing the securities they sold. In prospectuses filed with regulators, underwriters, in boilerplate legal language, typically said the exceptions accounted for a “significant” or “substantial” portion. Under securities laws, banks must disclose all material facts about the securities they underwrite.

Mr. Cuomo, who declined to comment through a spokesman, subpoenaed several Wall Street banks last summer, including Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank, which are big underwriters of mortgage securities; the three major credit-rating companies: Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings; and a number of mortgage consultants, known as due diligence firms, which vetted the loans, among them Clayton Holdings in Connecticut and the Bohan Group, based in San Francisco. Mr. Blumenthal said his office issued up to 30 subpoenas in its investigation, which began in late August.

Investment banks often bought the exception loans, sometimes at a discount, and packaged them into securities. Deutsche Bank, for example, underwrote securities backed by $1.5 billion of New Century loans in 2006 that included a “substantial” portion of exceptions, according to the prospectus, which lists “pride of ownership” among the reasons the loans were made.

Nearly 26 percent of the loans backing the pool are now delinquent, in foreclosure or have resulted in a repossessed home; some of the securities backed by the loans have been downgraded.

And as mortgage lending boomed, many due diligence firms scaled back their checks at Wall Street’s behest. By 2005 , the firms were evaluating as few as 5 percent of loans in mortgage pools they were buying, down from as much as 30 percent at the start of the decade, according to Kathleen Tillwitz, a senior vice president at DBRS, a credit-rating firm that has not been subpoenaed. These firms charged Wall Street banks about $350 to evaluate a loan, so sampling fewer loans cost less.

In recent months, Moody’s and Fitch have said that they would like to receive third-party due diligence reports and that the information should be provided to investors, too. Glenn T. Costello, who heads the residential mortgage group at Fitch, said his firm would not rate securities that include loans from lenders whose procedures and loan files it was not allowed to review.
Since the investment banks withheld the third party due diligence reports to credit agencies & investors, and knew the number and amount of subprime exception loans were in many cases a substantial portion of the loan pool, and only made boilerplate disclosures in SEC filings, these exception loans basically should never have been originated or sold to investors; as the probability of default (FPD or EPD) was almost a certainty! The legal issue is can the investment banks now be held liable for the losses on these securities for failing to disclose material facts or risks under the Securities Act of 1933 or Securities Exchange Act of 1934? Civil or criminal charges by the SEC or NY AG maybe coming soon!