Friday, October 24, 2014

San Francisco Mortgage Eminent Domain Plan - A Look at the Target Properties

On October 28, San Francisco Supervisors will consider forming a Homeownership Stabilization Authority with the city of Richmond. The Authority would have the ability to condemn residential mortgages as a way of keeping financially distressed owners in their homes. The focus would be on underwater properties with mortgages held in private loan securitizations; federally owned or guaranteed mortgages would be excluded.

I was surprised to learn that San Francisco has a problem with underwater mortgages. According to Zillow, the median home price in the City by the Bay peaked at $822,000 in 2007, bottomed out at $667,000 in late 2011, and has now reached $979,000 - 19% above the pre-recession high.

The Board of Supervisors' resolution states that San Francisco has approximately 300 underwater mortgages in private loan securitizations and that these are concentrated in "historically Black, Latino and Asian working class communities." 

Supporting documentation in the Supervisor's agenda packet includes a memo from ACCE Action stating that 279 San Francisco mortgages have LTV (loan-to-value) ratios of 107% or more. The memo breaks these mortgages down by zip code - with the highest concentrations in 94112 and 94124.

These two zip codes are in less affluent sections of the city where real estate prices have not performed as well as they have in the "hottest" neighborhoods.  That said, property in these zip codes is not seriously depressed by historical standards. In 94124 - which has seen the worst price performance - Zillow shows a median home value of $609,000 compared to a pre-recession peak of $635,000. Further, Zillow forecasts that within a year, the median will reach $636,000 - roughly equaling its previous peak. In 94112, Zillow only reports selling prices per square foot, and these have fully recovered from the recession.

Looking Beneath the Cover - Examining the Data

To learn more about San Francisco's underwater mortgages, I filed a public records request with the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.  They provided the 279 mortgages in an Excel file along with other lists and correspondence.  There is a lot of material to work through, but I thought I would share some initial findings.

First, unlike in the case of Richmond, there are no property addresses, so it will not be possible to map the properties unless and until the list is matched against a public records database. CoreLogic and some other companies perform this sort of matching, but normally charge substantial fees for doing so.

Still, the file does contain information that should raise some eyebrows. For example, 47 of the 279 properties have current estimated values in excess of $1 million. Many of these are 2-4 unit properties, but there are 18 condominiums and single family houses in the million dollar-plus category. One home has an estimated value of $8.65 million after being originally appraised at $12 million.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the number of loans that have been modified. According to the Board's resolution, homeowners whose loans were sold into private label securitizations "are unable to access many of the foreclosure prevention programs available to other struggling homeowners". Yet the data tell a different story:  129 of the 279 mortgages have had some kind of modification, such as principal reduction, interest rate reduction or additional time allowed for repayment. In many cases, multiple features of the mortgage were modified.

The resolution also notes that the vast majority of private label securitizations have "predatory" features. The features identified as predatory include negative amortization, interest only, balloon payments and adjustable rates. While I agree that negative amortization loans can be objectionable, I don't consider all these attributes to be necessarily predatory. Like many financial professionals, I have taken out ARMs on multiple occasions, and I never felt exploited. Indeed, since base interest rates are sharply lower than they were in 2007, it is likely that most ARM borrowers are paying little more than the original interest rates they incurred at origination. Of the 279 underwater San Francisco mortgages, 203 bear current interest rates of 4% or less - hardly predatory. Half of the universe consists of ARMs and another 49 are fixed rate.

Finally, it is worth noting that the vast majority of the underwater homes have multiple liens. In 244 of the 279 cases, the Combined LTV Ratio is different from the LTV Ratio, suggesting the presence of second and third mortgages. If one of the other liens is federally backed, the Authority may be challenged to liquidate the private mortgage while leaving the government mortgage intact. 

Undoubtedly, some San Francisco homeowners were sold predatory mortgage products by unscrupulous financial institutions. In some cases, these individuals may still be underwater because their homes were aggressively appraised or they live in neighborhoods with less robust price appreciation.

That said, we have yet to see a pool of mortgages that reliably falls into these categories. If the City cannot identify a set of mortgages that is fit for condemnation, the joint powers authority might benefit some undeserving homeowners - like the one with the $8.65 million house mentioned earlier. Further, if only a few dozen mortgages really do need to be liquidated, it is likely the City can find more cost effective means of doing so than through the use of eminent domain.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ocwen Letter Spooks the Market

Ocwen just can't seem to get a break.

After a rough first 9 months to the year -- stock was down 53.5% YTD as of Monday's close -- the release of NY State Fin. Dept. Superintendent Benjamin Lawsky's letter to Ocwen's general counsel sent the stock tumbling again. 

Our last coverage was back in February, after Ocwen had agreed to a settlement fee, with the CFPB, of $2.2 billion, for its missteps from 2009-2012.  We showed the potential for this litigation expense to grow, as there were even more complaints in 2013 against Ocwen than in 2012.

The stock is now down 24.8% from Monday's close: Lawsky's letter included some powerful language, some of which could have repercussions to Ocwen beyond the immediate scope of the letter.

Lawsky's previous letter to Ocwen, dated April 2014, brought to the fore what Lawsky's office saw to be a "particularly troubling issue" - "the relationship between Ocwen and Altisource Portfolio’s subsidiary, Hubzu, which Ocwen uses as its principal online auction site for the sale of its borrowers’ homes facing foreclosure, as well as investor-owned properties following foreclosure." 
Hubzu appears to be charging auction fees on Ocwen-serviced properties that are up to three times the fees charged to non-Ocwen customers. In other words, when Ocwen selects its affiliate Hubzu to host foreclosure or short sale auctions on behalf of mortgage investors and borrowers, the Hubzu auction fee is 4.5%; when Hubzu is competing for auction business on the open market, its fee is as low as 1.5%. These higher fees, of course, ultimately get passed on to the investors and struggling borrowers who are typically trying to mitigate their losses and are not involved in the selection of Hubzu as the host site.
In August, Moody's downgraded Ocwen's primary servicer and special servicer ratings - and left both assessments on watch for further downgrade.  The shareholder class action complaints started to trickle in in August, and by September 2014 a handful of shareholder complaints had been filed.  (See for example NORBERT TUSEO, Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated v. OCWEN FINANCIAL CORPORATION, RONALD M. FARIS, JOHN V. BRITTI and WILLIAM C. ERBEY)

The recent information about Ocwen's potentially backdating thousands of foreclosure documents is relevant not just insofar as it affects the nature of all current shareholder litigation, but insofar as Ocwen is being sued by mortgage borrowers, directly, and by mortgage market players and investors.  Crucially, Ocwen's servicing performance can be critical to the performance of RMBS securities.

For example, at least five third-party complaints have recently been filed by Nomura Credit & Capital, Inc. against, among other co-defendants, Ocwen as the servicer of the RMBS trusts. The complaints argue that Ocwen's underperformance has harmed the plaintiff, or that the breaches ought alternatively to relieve Nomura of certain of its duties to the trust.  The following excerpt comes from Nomura Credit & Capital, Inc. v Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., and Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, filed 8/11/14.

This public embarrassment can make it more difficult for Ocwen to defend itself in the existing and future litigation as it will inevitable have suffered a deterioration in reputation capital.  Last but not least, it will likely further hinder any near-term hopes Ocwen may have had of buying additional mortgage servicing rights (MSRs), and expanding its business.