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Bankers sold shaky mortgage debt

As the subprime loan crisis deepens, Wall Street firms are increasingly coming under scrutiny for their role in selling risky mortgage-related securities to investors.

Many of the home loans tied to these investments quickly defaulted, resulting in billions of dollars of losses for investors. At the same time, many of the companies that sold these securities, concerned about a looming meltdown in the housing market, protected themselves from losses. One big bank that saw the trouble coming, Goldman Sachs, began reducing its inventory of mortgages and mortgage securities late last year. Even so, Goldman went on to package and sell more than $6 billion of new securities backed by subprime mortgages during the first nine months of this year.

Of the loans backing the Goldman deals for which data is available, nearly 15 percent are already delinquent by more than 60 days, are in foreclosure or have resulted in the repossession of a home, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The average default rate for subprime loans packaged in 2007 is 11 percent.

The New York attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, has subpoenaed major Wall Street banks, including Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, seeking information about the packaging and selling of subprime mortgages. And the Securities and Exchange Commission is examining how Wall Street companies valued their own holdings of these complex investments.

The Wall Street banks that foresaw problems say they hedged their mortgage positions as part of their fiduciary duty to shareholders. Indeed, some other companies, particularly Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and UBS, apparently did not foresee the housing market collapse and lost billions of dollars, leading to forced resignations of their chief executives.

In any case, the bankers argue, buyers of such securities - institutional investors like pension funds, banks and hedge funds - are sophisticated and understand the risks. Wall Street officials maintain that the system worked as it was supposed to. Underwriters, they say, did not pressure colleagues on trading desks or in research departments to promote securities blindly.

Nevertheless, the loans that many banks packaged are proving to be increasingly toxic. Almost a quarter of the subprime loans that were transformed into securities by Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Morgan Stanley last year are already in default, according to Bloomberg. About a fifth of the loans backing securities underwritten by Merrill Lynch are in trouble.

Data from another firm that tracks mortgage securities, Lewtan Technologies, shows similar trends. The banks declined to comment on the default rates. The data raises questions about how closely Wall Street banks scrutinized these loans, many of them made at low teaser rates that will reset next year to higher levels.

The Bush administration is close to a plan to freeze mortgage rates temporarily for some homeowners who are threatened with foreclosure.

In recent years, Wall Street aggressively pushed into the complex, high-margin business of packaging mortgages. At the same time, banks expanded their roles to selling investments to clients while trying to make money on their own holdings. Now, with the collapse of the credit bubble, Wall Street's risk management, as well as the multiple and often conflicting roles it plays, has been laid bare.

As early as January 2006, Greg Lippmann, Deutsche Bank's global head of trading for asset-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, and his team began advising hedge funds and other institutional investors to protect themselves from a coming decline in the housing market.

Last year, Deutsche Bank underwrote $28.6 billion of subprime mortgage securities, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry publication. In the first nine months of this year, the bank underwrote $12 billion.

Source: The New York Times
Date: 07.12.2007 [149]

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