Banks grapple with second-mortgage troubles

Delinquency rates causing mass foreclosures, billions in charge-offs

By Inman News Feed
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Delinquency rates causing mass foreclosures, billions in charge-offs

Steve Bergsman
Inman News

The pressure is all on second place.

Whether one calls it a second mortgage, second lien or home equity loan, the lenders who occupy the subordinate position in the debt stack on your home mortgage are finding out that being No. 2, quite frankly, sucks big time.

Back in the day, before 2007, when money was so cheap that even a grizzly bear wandering around the forest could get a mortgage for his cave, banks also were happy to extend home equity loans and lines of credit to single-family homeowners.

"Hey, Mr. Grizzly Bear, want to fix up that cave and make it a crib? Well, here's some Benjamins."

What's that old joke: You walk in one door of a bank empty-handed and out another with a toaster and home equity loan.

Since credit flowed like water, banks were equally happy to do an 80-20 loan, which was basically a first mortgage for 80 percent of the value of a home plus a home equity or second mortgage for the remaining 20 percent. Whoopee, no money down for the borrower.

Now it's time for banks to pay the piper. Here's the big problem: If the home value is underwater or the homeowners are having trouble paying bills, the holder of the second mortgage or home equity loan doesn't get paid back until after the holder of the first loan, which in those two scenarios almost never happens.

Those 80-20 loans by definition meant the loan-to-value was high, high, high, and now that home values have declined, collecting any money for the second-lien holder is slim at best.

If there is a HAMP (Home Affordable Modification Program) procedure or a short sale, the second-lien holder also gets wiped out. Needless to say, second-lien holders are in no rush to see loan modifications completed or jump into short sales, both of which would mean writing down the loans as full losses.

At most banks, home equity loans, no matter how precarious, for as long as possible are carried on the books at full value -- a bit of a fiction, but it does make the banks look better.

In March, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, openly called for the major banks to start writing down second mortgages. His point being, reported the Wall Street Journal, was "the banks' reluctance to write down second mortgages is hurting efforts to reduce the first-lien mortgage balances of many borrowers who owe far more on their loans than the current value of their homes."

Indeed, one new change for the Obama administration's HAMP is that borrowers who get reduced payments on the first mortgage through HAMP would automatically get a break on the second lien as well.

Underneath all the politics, however, are some serious problems in regard to home equity loans: Delinquencies are rising very rapidly.

Shelley Leonard, a senior vice president of Consumer Lending Strategy at Lender Processing Services Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., has been reading the home equity numbers as if they were tea leaves, and she doesn't like what she sees.

Historically, she said, delinquencies on home equity loans have been very low, but all that changed last year.

In 2005 and 2006, delinquency rates for home equity loans and home equity lines of credit remained under 1 percent. By the end of 2008, the delinquency rate for home equity loans crept above 2 percent. Then, over the course of 2009 those numbers vaulted to 5 percent, a major leap in percentage.

"Most of the gain was in a one-year period," Leonard reiterates. "That's a huge pick-up in delinquency."

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