Jingle Mail

Michael Burry, M.D. was one of the earliest investment fund managers to recognize the problems in the housing and mortgage market. Dr. Burry’s story is very well told in a chapter of the book The Big Short By Michael Lewis, and also in an article which was published in Vanity Fair Magazine titled Betting on the Blind Side, also written by Michael Lewis1 . This morning I was doing some searching and reading on the mortgage market and some of the key-players in the market. In that activity, I came upon a link to Dr. Burry’s published Scion Capital Investment Newsletters. As I was browsing through the letters, I discovered this very interesting comment (prediction) from Dr. Burry’s Second Quarter of 2003 Letter to Investors2. I thought you might like to see this comment from the Scion 2Q 2003 Letter to Investors:
When home prices begin to fall, a natural level of weak support may develop around a loan-to-value ratio of one. That is, when equity in a home approaches zero, the homeowner ought to become reluctant to sell. History suggests any such strategy should prove foolhardy. Trends in housing tend to be long and headstrong, and hence not easily resisted…The development of significantly negative home equity among the same homeowners that also comprise the world’s most voracious consumers would likely trigger several economic problems…banks would become reluctant to lend to home buyers. The effect would be to contract the credit available to would-be homeowners and therefore severely undercut the main late-cycle driver of demand…These problems would compound the worsening domestic employment situation, further reducing demand for residential housing and thereby producing the requisite positive feedback loop that historically has allowed burgeoning asset deflation to accelerate. As the real estate deflation wears on, it would not be unreasonable to expect that unemployment-induced income shocks mix in toxic fashion with the comparatively high mobility tolerance of the United States citizenry, motivating homeowners to start sending their keys to the bank in ever-increasing numbers. Many banks taking possession of increasing amounts of real estate will ultimately fail themselves. A catharsis could then take shape, and home prices would leg down yet again. After much pain both despair and disgust will settle in, and a bottom would begin to form.

-Scion 2Q 2003 Letter to Investors
1. Betting on the Blind Side By Michael Lewis – published in Vanity Fare Magazine | April 2010 at> http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/04/wall-street-excerpt-201004

2. Scion Capital 2Q Letter to Investors at> http://www.scioncapital.com/PDFs/Scion%202008%201Q.pdf

A Mortgage Tornado Warning, Unheeded

BUSINESS DAY | February 05, 2012
A Mortgage Tornado Warning, Unheeded
Inspired by a personal experience, a businessman began delving into the practices of the mortgage industry, including Fannie Mae. His findings have been prescient.
Ms. Morgenson:

Regarding MERS, a few months ago I read that MERS was actually conceived by Fannie Mae and the concept was described in a presentation given at a Mortgage Bankers Association convention in 1993 or 1994. The article claimed Fannie got positive feedback on the MERS concept from the mortgage bankers. The article claimed that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac then funded the development of MERS with contributions of 2 million dollars each. After MERS was 'brought live' Fannie and Freddie invited large mortgage industry members to join MERS on a subscription basis.

I've searched again for the article(s) recently, but I haven't been able to find the articles that described the actual creation of MERS. Perhaps the articles have been "scrubbed".

What I read seems to confirm the leadership role that Fannie and Freddie had, and the ways these two GSE's influenced and led the industry, and how they shaped practices in the industry. You might find the two articles referenced below interesting:

Is FM Watch a Crusader With an Agenda? By Louis Sichelman – RealtyTimes, pub. 7/5/1999 at: http://realtytimes.com/rtpages/19990705_fmwatch.htm

New Alliance Confronts FM Watch, Champions Existing Housing Finance System By Broderick Perkins RealtyTimes, pub. 10/5/2000>  http://realtytimes.com/rtpages/20001005_fmwatch.htm

So, Who's a Lobbyist?

New York Times –Opinion | Editorial - pub. January 26, 2012

 So, Who’s a Lobbyist? *

Three step test for a duck: (1) If it walks like a duck (2) Looks like a duck (3) And, quacks like a duck.

It is, more than likely, a duck.

Inside the D. C. Beltway definition and semantics are tortured to death by people who strive to gain (or, strive not to lose) by blurring the lines of the meaning of what is . . . .

Do you remember: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" William Jefferson Clinton – 1998
An aside: I discovered the nature of lobbying, twisted definitions, and semantic reclassification while studying the history of Section 28(e) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (as amended in 1975). The amendment originally described the allowable uses of investment advisors’ clients’ ‘brokerage commissions paid-up above the fully-negotiated costs of brokerage transaction execution’ (soft dollars). When passed, this amendment never mentioned any difference in the treatment institutional agency brokerage commissions arrangements, as compared to institutional full-service bundled undisclosed brokerage commission arrangements.

The Means of Production

On the subject of capital investment, and the taxation of capital gains, it seems to me that almost all of the media has missed an important point, and several lesser points that flow from that central point.

The Central Point: 

Capital investment pays for (or finances) what Karl Marx called “the means of production”.


Other Points:

In a free capitalistic market individual investors decide where they want to invest their money, how much risk to take with their money, and whether they are going to invest in, for instance, the manufacture of cell phones or the activities of grocery stores. Or, they can decide if they want to invest in solar panel manufacturers (like, Solendra?).

If individual investors are not incented to invest their capital in “the means of production” it seems the alternative is for government to use taxpayer funds for investment and use some form of ‘central planning’ to decide in which enterprises the taxpayers taxes will be invested.

It’s been pointed out by several in the media that capital investment actually produces taxable revenue when the enterprise must pay a tax on revenue. And, it’s been mentioned that the investor then pays another tax (the capital gains tax) - if the investor is fortunate, or smart, enough to make a capital gain.

However, I’ve not seen any media (or reporters) mention that there is usually another source of taxable revenue which flows from capital investment. Capital investment generally contributes to job creation. Most of the people who are employed in the investors’ enterprise will have an income – some of which is taxed. And another point, which also seems subtle to the press, the part of those workers’ income which is not taxed can be used by the workers to consume, save, or invest. These worker activities (consumption, saving and investing) all add value to the economy, and they produce jobs and more (downstream) revenues which are taxed.

I believe myriad individuals participating in a relatively free market, and making judgments about products to be offered while making judgments about demand levels for those products, and evaluating risk-and-reward payoffs, is a far more efficient, objective, and practical way to finance ‘the means of production’ than any central planning scheme.


Mortgage Servicing, Foreclosure Practices and MERS

During a December 15, 2010 U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing witnesses gave testimony on issues relating to "Mortgage Servicing and Foreclosure Practices".1

A critical focus of the testimony and discussion was apparent problems with the recordation of land title and note ownership. Witnesses claimed that the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS)2 has failed to reliably record changes in title and note ownership (chain-of-title). The accompanying video-clip is a segment from the C-SPAN video of the hearing:

If you are not familiar with MERS do a key-word-search for more information.


1. see, C-SPAN Video Library, Mortgage Servicing and Foreclosure Practices House of Representatives Judiciary Committee December 15, 2010 at: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/297095-1

2. see, Washington Post - October 8, 2010 article titled, Reston Based Company MERS in Middle of Foreclosure Chaos By Brady Dennis and Ariana Eunjun Cha at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/07/AR2010100702742.html



Ron Paul's Chrystal Ball

Government Mortgage Schemes Distort the Housing Market

Congressman Ron Paul U.S. House of Representatives July 16, 2002*

Mr. Speaker, I rise to introduce the Free Housing Market Enhancement Act. This legislation restores a free market in housing by repealing special privileges for housing-related government sponsored enterprises (GSEs). These entities are the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie), the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie), and the National Home Loan Bank Board (HLBB). According to the Congressional Budget Office, the housing-related GSEs received $13.6 billion worth of indirect federal subsidies in fiscal year 2000 alone.

One of the major government privileges granted these GSEs is a line of credit to the United States Treasury. According to some estimates, the line of credit may be worth over $2 billion. This explicit promise by the Treasury to bail out these GSEs in times of economic difficulty helps them attract investors who are willing to settle for lower yields than they would demand in the absence of the subsidy. Thus, the line of credit distorts the allocation of capital. More importantly, the line of credit is a promise on behalf of the government to engage in a massive unconstitutional and immoral income transfer from working Americans to holders of GSE debt.

The Free Housing Market Enhancement Act also repeals the explicit grant of legal authority given to the Federal Reserve to purchase the debt of housing-related GSEs. GSEs are the only institutions besides the United States Treasury granted explicit statutory authority to monetize their debt through the Federal Reserve. This provision gives the GSEs a source of liquidity unavailable to their competitors.

Ironically, by transferring the risk of a widespread mortgage default, the government increases the likelihood of a painful crash in the housing market. This is because the special privileges of Fannie, Freddie, and HLBB have distorted the housing market by allowing them to attract capital they could not attract under pure market conditions. As a result, capital is diverted from its most productive use into housing. This reduces the efficacy of the entire market and thus reduces the standard of living of all Americans.

However, despite the long-term damage to the economy inflicted by the government’s interference in the housing market, the government’s policies of diverting capital to other uses creates a short-term boom in housing. Like all artificially-created bubbles, the boom in housing prices cannot last forever. When housing prices fall, homeowners will experience difficulty as their equity is wiped out. Furthermore, the holders of the mortgage debt will also have a loss. These losses will be greater than they would have otherwise been had government policy not actively encouraged over-investment in housing.

Perhaps the Federal Reserve can stave off the day of reckoning by purchasing GSE debt and pumping liquidity into the housing market, but this cannot hold off the inevitable drop in the housing market forever. In fact, postponing the necessary but painful market corrections will only deepen the inevitable fall. The more people invested in the market, the greater the effects across the economy when the bubble bursts.

No less an authority than Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has expressed concern that government subsidies provided to the GSEs make investors underestimate the risk of investing in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Mr. Speaker, it is time for Congress to act to remove taxpayer support from the housing GSEs before the bubble bursts and taxpayers are once again forced to bail out investors misled by foolish government interference in the market. I therefore hope my colleagues will stand up for American taxpayers and investors by cosponsoring the Free Housing Market Enhancement Act.

See transcript at: http://paul.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=323&Itemid=60

Misaligned Incentives and The Shadow Inventory

During a December 15, 2010 House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Hearing, Representative Bobby Scott [D. VA] asked those testifying if there was anything in "accounting standards" that was causing the mortgage industry not to accept ‘short sale offers’ and to seemingly prefer going to foreclosure. No testifier apparently knew of the impact the delay in the implementation of mark-to-market accounting [FAS #157] has on loss recognition accounting; but Thomas Cox (an Attorney in Maine) explained another reason for the apparent rejection of 'short sale' offers.
You might want to review another article and video posted here, to see the context and the actual question asked by Representative Scott, see “Zombie Accounting and The Shadow Inventory” at:  http://billsplace.posterous.com/zombie-accounting-and-the-shadow-inventory

Zombie Accounting and The Shadow Inventory

I recently watched a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Hearing on C-SPAN. The hearing, which was held on December 15, 2010, was titled “Mortgage Services and Foreclosure Practices”.1 The testimony and the questions and answers in the hearing provided a significant amount of interesting information about the processes, and the legal and practical issues surrounding the mortgage servicing industry, and the Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS).

Because I followed the history of Congress’s involvement in pressuring the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) to delay the implementation of FAS #157 in early 2009.2 I found a question, which was asked by Congressman Bobby Scott (D. VA) troubling.

At approximately 1 hour 36 minutes into the hearing Congressman Scott asked, in essence, if there was anything in “accounting standards” that might provide incentives for mortgage investors and mortgage servicers not to agree to short sales and to prefer alternatives that might be less advantageous for all parties.

I was surprised by the question because of Congress’ significant role in pressuring the FASB for a delay in FAS #157 and I was also bit surprised that none of the witnesses could directly answer the question - from an accounting standards perspective. In general, the witnesses only discussed the mis-alignment of incentives, where mortgage pooling and servicing agreements provide ongoing revenue for servicers when a short sale is not agreed to and a foreclosure is delayed.3

1. The December 15, 2010 House Judiciary Committee “Mortgage Services and Foreclosure Practices” hearing may be seen at:  http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/297095-1
2. See a Wall Street Journal article titled, Congress Helped Banks Defang Key Rule By Susan Pulliam and Tom McGinty pub. 6/3/2009 at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124396078596677535.html Also see, For Your Reading Pleasure By Jack Ciesielski pub. in the Analyst’s Accounting Observer 2/25/2010 at: http://www.accountingobserver.com/PublicBlog/tabid/54/EntryId/12583/For-Your-Reading-Pleasure.aspx
3. Under the typical mortgage securitization “Pooling and Servicing Agreements” mortgage investors agree to pay mortgage servicers fees for arranging: home inspections, arranging broker ‘opinion of value’, preparing and filing documents, general documentation, notifications, forced insurance fees, and etc.

On A Clear Day . . .

 Many politicians, some federal regulators, and many vocal media commentators claim that the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and its regulatory evolution had nothing to do with the creation of the U.S. housing and mortgage bubble. It seems that, at some point in the near future, an objective review of the facts may require a revision of the claim that the CRA was not a significant factor in the creation of the U.S. housing and mortgage bubble.1


The Community Reinvestment Act: Its Evolution and New Challenges*

A speech by Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke 

At the Community Affairs Research Conference, Washington, D.C.

March 30, 2007

From the third paragraph below the heading: The Evolution of The CRA

Even as these developments were occurring, extensive change was taking place in the financial services sector. During the 1980s and 1990s, technological progress significantly improved data collection and information processing, which led to the development and widespread use of credit-scoring models and the availability of generic credit history scores. Deregulation also contributed to the changes in the marketplace. Notably, the lifting of prohibitions against interstate banking was followed by an increased pace of industry consolidation. Also, the preemption of usury laws on home loans created more scope for risk-based pricing of mortgages. Securitization of affordable housing loans expanded, as did the secondary market for those loans, in part reflecting a 1992 law that required the government-sponsored enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to devote a percentage of their activities to meeting affordable housing goals (HUD, 2006). A generally strong economy and lower interest rates also helped improved access to credit by lower-income households.

1. To see reasoning which strongly opposes the view that the CRA was not an influence in the creation of the bubble,see: The Financial Crisis on Trial By Peter J. Wallison - WSJ OPINION pub. December 21, 2011 at: http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052970204791104577108183677635076-lMyQjAxMTAyMDAwNDEwNDQyWj.html?mod=wsj_share_email

Hedge Funds Build Case For Housing

By Gregory Zuckerman
Wall Street Journal – December 29, 2011
Many commenters here have used the term 'Shadow Foreclosures' the proper term is "Shadow Inventory'. Shadow inventory represents the excess supply of housing. Banks and other mortgage investors have been deferring foreclosures (for several reasons) but one primary reason is because they realize if all the inventory was to come to market in any short time period home prices in most markets would plummet (further). It's estimated, by S&P, that the current shadow inventory will take about 45 months 'to clear'.1

A subtlety, hedge funds invest other peoples' money (o.p.m.) and they collect an annual management fee while they wait for their strategy to pay-off. If the strategy pays-off they get a very large incentive bonus (portion of the profits). Hedge funds generally will not allow investors to 'cash-out' for a couple of years after the investor deposits his or her investment (the 'lock-up' period). So, the idea is to sell a very risky or a very volatile strategy, so you can get the management fee while you wait for - and hopefully eventually reap - the huge incentive fees.2 

What happens when a hedge fund strategy "blows-up"? The manager moves-on to a different strategy, and most likely, a different group of investors.

Picking the bottom of any market is a timing issue, by the time these hedge fund "lock-ups" have expired most of the investors will probably start to see signs of life in the housing market and will decide that after a couple years of pain, during the "lock-up", it's probably a good idea to hang-in-there and perhaps enjoy some profit. In my opinion the hedge fund managers in this article are following a contrarian strategy and may be quite early . . . but, it takes time to convince those hedge fund investors to invest.

Remember, home prices change at the margin, one-sale-at-a-time, the next sale is based upon comparable sales and an appraisal - and in most cases - the completion of the sale is dependent upon the availability of mortgage financing.

Watch unemployment and don't just look at the published numbers for mortgage interest rates, look at the number of new mortgages actually issued. If what used to be a qualified buyer can't buy, the excess inventory will not be absorbed by anybody but investors who want to be landlords. I believe Mr. Mark Hanson (in the article) has the proper current view of the housing market.

1. see article, S&P: 45 Months to Clear Shadow Inventory By Kerry Panchuk pub. Housing Wire November 23, 2011 - at: http://www.housingwire.com/2011/11/23/sp-45-months-to-clear-shadow-inventory
2. see Introduction pages 1 and 2 to A Balancing Act: Privacy, Regulation, and Innovation in Hedge Funds By Thomas Van De Bogart and Justin Blincoe