Do I really know something Steven Levitt doesn’t?

Steven Levitt writes:

Back in the old days, banks didn’t package and resell the mortgages they wrote. So when a homeowner got into trouble, they could go down and talk with the bank about working out some solution other than foreclosure. For instance, the bank could allow the borrower to pay back the loan over 30 years instead of 15 years, reducing the monthly payment.

Not really… Even in the old days (unless we’re talking really old days), the homeowner would not talk to the lender. Instead, they would talk to the servicer in charge of their loan (in the really old days, servicers were units of lender banks, but eventually, independent servicing companies sprang out all over the place). Here’s how Fannie Mae explains what servicers do and how they are compensated:

We do not perform the day-to-day servicing of the mortgage loans that are held in our mortgage portfolio or that back our Fannie Mae MBS… Typically, lenders who sell single-family mortgage loans to us initially service the mortgage loans they sell to us. There is an active market in which lenders sell servicing rights and obligations to other servicers.

Mortgage servicers typically collect and remit principal and interest payments, administer escrow accounts, monitor and report delinquencies, evaluate transfers of ownership interests, respond to requests for partial releases of security, and handle proceeds from casualty and condemnation losses. For problem loans, servicing includes negotiating workouts, engaging in loss mitigation and, if necessary, inspecting and preserving properties and processing foreclosures and bankruptcies. We have the right to remove servicing responsibilities from any servicer under criteria established in our contractual arrangements with servicers. We compensate servicers primarily by permitting them to retain a specified portion of each interest payment on a serviced mortgage loan, called a “servicing fee.” Servicers also generally retain prepayment premiums, assumption fees, late payment charges and other similar charges, to the extent they are collected from borrowers, as additional servicing compensation. We also compensate servicers for negotiating workouts on problem loans.

So from the borrower’s standpoint, not much has changed because of securitization; the borrower still deals mostly, of not exclusively, with the servicer.

I have four questions:

OK, let’s take them one at a time, keeping in mind that there are servicers…

1) With mortgage-backed securities, is it really the case that a given mortgage is stripped into multiple pieces held by different entities?

Not exactly. First, mortgages are assembled into a pool, which is structured as a separate legal entity with mortgages as its assets. Then, this pool can be stripped, with strips becoming the pool’s liabilities; the alternative is a simple pass-through structure. The company that puts the pool together (such as Fannie Mae) is the sole equity holder.

2) If mortgages really are stripped into pieces, how does foreclosure work? If many different firms hold a piece of the mortgage, who initiates foreclosure? Who pays the costs of foreclosure? It would seem to me that many of the same obstacles to working out a refinancing deal would be present for foreclosing as well.

Foreclosure works just as it used to before securitization. “Many firms holding pieces of the mortgage” are creditors and thus have no say in the foreclosure matters. The out-of-pocket costs of foreclosures are paid by the pool (meaning that in the end they accrue to the company that created the pool); the decision to initiate foreclosure is also made by the pool (meaning, essentially, by the company that has created the pool).

3) If mortgages are not stripped into pieces, are there firms out there trying to scoop up failing mortgages at rock-bottom prices and getting on the phone with the homeowners to try to negotiate deals to avoid foreclosure? If mortgages are not stripped into pieces, I don’t understand why it is so hard to value these mortgage-backed securities.

Where would those firms “trying to scoop up failing mortgages at rock-bottom prices” come from? By now, whoever wanted to invest in mortgages, already has more than they know what to do with; that’s why we have a credit crunch on hand… As to difficulties in valuation, they come not so much from stripping, but from uncertainties surrounding mortgages; the borrower can default (and the amount to be recovered from selling the foreclosed home is highly uncertain, as house prices change over time) or refinance. Neither of these eventualities is in control of the lender, so valuation ultimately depends on assumptions the lender makes about probabilities and timing of default and/or refinancing, as well as about the likely value of the home in the event of default.

4) If indeed mortgages are stripped into pieces, weren’t people worried about the complications that would result when these mortgages were divided into pieces?

Yes and no. Complications should be weighted against opportunities they afford. Mortgage securitization offered an easy and cost-effective way to invest in mortgages for mutual funds and insurance companies…

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