Thursday, September 30, 2010

Should American Homeowners Stop Paying Mortgages?

Since Wall Street is essentially lined with Zombie traders trading Zombie stocks, there are more interesting developments on the financial landscape that deserve attention.

We'll get to the title of this post in a moment, but first, here's how the day went for those six or seven individual investors still trading stocks.

Initial claims came in better than expected, at 453,000, after last week's upwardly-revised 467,000. Everyone cheered. Stocks started the day on a positive note. At 9:45, the Chicago PMI came out, showing a dramatic ramp-up, to 60.4, after an August reading of 56.7, and far better than the expectation of 55.0. More cheering. CNBC's Mark Haines nearly wet himself, giddy that the Dow was closing in on 11,000, though that's expected from such an utter moron cheerleader.

The Fed executed another POMO, which was not accompanied by cheers, but rather jeers, worth only $2.2 billion. Stocks soured on the news. The Dow, which had been up more than 110 points, dropped to a 90-point loss shortly after noon, with the other indices registering similar declines.

The rest of the day was spent trying to ignore bad news and prop up stocks. The insiders did a fair job, bringing the indices back to show only marginal declines.

Dow 10,788.05, -47.23 (0.44%)
NASDAQ 2,368.62, -7.94 (0.33%)
S&P 500 1,141.20, -3.53 (0.31%)
NYSE Composite 7,281.07, -18.24 (0.25%)
NASDAQ Volume 2,198,369,250
NYSE Volume 4,673,228,500

Declining issues nosed out advancers, 2878-2812. New Highs beat New Lows, 478-36. Volume was at its normal, reduced pace.

Crude oil gained $2.11, to $79.97. Gold fell $1.20, to $1308.70. Silver also lost ground, down 15 cents, to $21.75.

Now, on to the question of whether or not American homeowners should stop paying their mortgages. This question became relevant a few years ago, when many subprime lenders defaulted on what have come to be known as liar loans, no doc loans and NINJA (No Income, No Job and no Assets) loans. The subprime catastrophe began in 2007, and some of the borrowers are probably still living in their homes without making either mortgage or tax payments.

Even more homeowners defaulted during the recession of 2008-2009, cratering the housing markets in Nevada, California, Florida and Michigan primarily, but spreading nationwide as foreclosures soared and millions were kicked out of their homes and onto the street.

Recently, however, the sad saga of the residential housing collapse took an even more severe turn, when it was discovered that thousands of affidavits used by banks in foreclosures were invalid. The signers of the affidavits were employees of Ally Bank, formerly GMAC, whohad neither read the contents of the affidavits nor had any knowledge of the events described therein.

Ally Bank responded by halting all foreclosures, evictions and repossessions in 23 states.

Also, implicated was JP Morgan Chase, one of the largest holders of mortgage paper. The bank responded by halting 56,000 foreclosures in their respective tracks. With an average value of $200,000 (probably worth something closer to $125,000 today), that's more than $11 billion in mortgage loans facing foreclosure that are just going to have to sit and wait while the bank and the courts sort all of this out.

In response, today, the Attorney General of Ohio, Richard Cordray, has referred the GMAC foreclosure fiasco to the Justice Department as a possible criminal matter.

And, not to be left out, late Wednesday, Ambac Assurance sued Bank of America for $16.7 billion, saying the bank's Countrywide unit fraudulently induced Ambac to insure bonds backed by improperly made loans.

On top of all of that, savvy homeowners with underwater loans have been strategically defaulting in droves, choosing to fight the banks rather than spend hard-earned money on a home which may never be worth what they paid for it. That only adds to the hundreds of thousands of strapped homeowners who defaulted due to job loss or other personal calamity.

With word out now that the bank paperwork may be in tatters, with titles clouded on homes across America, the banks - who started the whole mess by making mortgage loans to anybody with a pulse during the mid-2000s - are looking more and more like the eventual fall guys in all of this.

For background, this interview on King World with Institutional Risk Analytics Co-Founder Chris Whalen gives a very concise and scary view of where the banks stand and what may come next.

In essence, the banks have reams of paperwork on mortgages all over the country, though nobody is really certain which parts are real, which are forgeries and how this is all going to play out in the courts. What is known is that the banks face extremely expensive litigation for years to come, courts are overwhelmed with foreclosure cases and meanwhile, many non-paying homeowners are living in the houses rent-and-mortgage-free, most not paying property taxes either.

Banks may choose to "walk away" rather than litigate on many mortgage loans, especially those with known defects (so-called "putbacks") that have been returned by the GSEs (Fannie and Freddie) or the trusts of MBS.

With scads of homeowners living the good life, those stuck with mortgage payments may get the idea that they too might like to take their mortgage payment and sock it away or spend it rather than give it to the bank, who may or may not have legal title and thus the right to foreclose in the first place.

It's a calculated risk, depending upon the state in which you live and the pertinent laws. Most states are judicial foreclosure states, in which the only way for the bank to repossess is through the courts, while others are non-judicial. Even in those states, faulty paperwork would prevent foreclosure, should the homeowner hire a capable attorney or handle the proceedings on one's own.

With the outlook for the economy generally glum over the coming five to ten years, there are for certain more than a few people considering the strategic default route, foregoing the mortgage payment, and thus risking being kicked out of your home, and weighing the risk with the distinct possibility that the litigation could take anywhere from nine months to three years and that the bank may not have the proper paperwork, anyway.

In such a case, the homeowner may receive a windfall in the form of a free house, though he or she may not be able to ever sell it, due to defects in the title. The scenario is cloudy for most people, but still worth consideration.

One thing is for sure. The more people who openly default, the more the idea gains traction and at some point the flood of defaults could reach critical mass, wherein the banks and the courts are so completely overwhelmed - and the economy suffers severely as a result - that it makes complete sense NOT to pay.

That condition almost certainly already exists in Detroit, Las Vegas, Miami and parts of California and Arizona, the epicenters of mortgage default. The municipal authorities have to be under severe pressure in these cities, as property tax revenues have likely fallen to depression levels. When the government begins to take significant hits because of the calamity in home-ownership, squatting and vandalism become rampant. This is already the case in the aforementioned areas. The question is whether or not it is coming to your town or city and whether or not your local mayor or supervisor has enough vision - and money - to keep the municipality operational.

And that's the ultimate fear: anarchy, as debt becomes the brunt of jokes, homes are lived in without regard to legal ownership and the government cracks under fiscal pressure. If the onslaught of defaults isn't handled properly and quickly enough, America's cities could turn into seething, decaying cesspools of debt, default and doubt, with the suburbs soon to follow suit.

In such a scenario, guns and metal doors may serve occupants better than clear title and paying off a mortgage would move to the bottom of the list after safety, security, food, water and utilities.

So, the next time you're about to write that check for the monthly mortgage payment, consider that moral hazard has already been slain by the actions of the banks and the government and your next move could be the most critical, life-changing action you'll ever undertake.

Borrowing a line from Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry", you have to ask yourself, "do you feel lucky?"

No comments: