Big Banks About to Start Booking Second Mortgage Losses They Can No Longer Extend and Pretend Away

When the mortgage mess was a hotter topic than it has been of late, we would write from time to time about the second mortgage time bomb sitting at the major banks, particularly Bank of America

Reuters has a new article, Insight: A new wave of U.S. mortgage trouble threatens, which is simultaneously informative and frustrating. It is informative in that it provides some good detail but it is frustrating in that it depicts a long-standing problem aided and abetted by regulators as new.

Unlike first mortgages, which were in the overwhelming majority of cases securitized and sold to investors, banks in the overwhelming majority of cases kept second liens (which in pretty much all cases were home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs) on their books).

This arrangement led to tons, and I mean tons, of abuses, which regulators chose to ignore or worse, actively promoted. Second liens, as the name implies, have second priority to first liens. In a bankruptcy or resturcturing, they are to be wiped out entirely before the first lien is touched (“impaired” as they say).

Unlike first mortgages, where fixed payments are stipulated, HELOCs didn’t require borrowers to engage in principal amortization until typically ten years after the loan was first made (a minority of loans set the limit at five years)

But the banks that had HELOCs on their books were often the servicer of the related first liens. And even though they had a contractual obligation to service those first liens in the interest of the investors, they’d predictably watch out for their own bottom line instead. For instance, if a borrower was deeply underwater, it would make sense to at least partially write down the second. If the borrower was delinquent, the servicer should write off the second and restructure (aka modify) the first mortgage. But instead you’d see banks use their blocking position as second lien holder to obstruct mortgage modifications. Worse, Bill Frey of Greenwich Financial documented that Bank of America had modified subprime mortgages securitized by Countrywide (as in reduced their value) without touching the seconds, a clear abuse (notice that this issue was raised in the BofA mortgage settlement, and bank crony judge Barbara Kapnik looks almost certain to sweep it under the rug).

Regulators played a direct hand in this chicanery. If the regulators had forced the banks to write down HELOCs, banks would have much less incentive to try to wring blood out of the turnip of underwater borrowers (particularly if the regulators had made clear they took a dim view of that sort of thing). But the authorities were far more concerned about preserving the appearance of solvency of the TBTF players.

Another dubious practice that regulators enabled was extend and pretend on HELOCs. This is not unlike credit cards in the pre-crisis era, where banks were permitted to set the minimum payment so low as to pay interest only (banks are now required to set minimum payments high enough to that the balance would be paid off in 60 months).

If that isn’t bad enough, the banks went one step further. Banks were engaging in negative amortization, as in not even requiring borrowers to pay all the interest charges, which meant they were adding unpaid interest to principal in order to keep the mortgages looking current so as to avoid writing them down. As we wrote in 2011:

The bone of contention is that mortgage servicers, which Indiana laws on payday loans also happen to units within the biggest US banks, have not been playing nicely at all with stressed borrowers out of an interest in preserving the value of their parent banks’ second liens. And the reason for that is that writing down second liens to anything within hailing distance of reality, given how badly underwater a lot of borrowers in the US are, would blow a very big hole in the equity of major banks and force a revival of the TARP…

Anecdotally, it appears that banks use a very aggressive carrot and stick to keep seconds current. They threaten borrowers with aggressive debt collection on seconds. And on home equity lines, which are the overwhelming majority of second liens (see this spreadsheet courtesy Josh Rosner for details of the results from the five biggest servicers, click to enlarge), negative amortization is kosher.

So what does a bank do? On day 89, before the HELOC is about to go delinquent, it tells the borrower to pay anything on it. A trivial payment is treated as keeping the HELOC current. So this explains Eisenger’s question: it’s easy for the Wells of this world to pretend that these second loans are doing fine if you will go through all sorts of hoops to make them look current, including if needed by lending them the money to make part of their interest payment. So even though a lot of commentators argue that it’s hard to argue that banks should write down their seconds if borrowers are current, what “current” really means deserves a lot more scrutiny than it has gotten.