Ghost of A Crisis Past

photo by Chandres

The Royal Bank of Scotland settled an investigation brought by New York Attorney General Schneiderman arising from mortgage-backed securities it issued in the run up to the financial crisis. RBS will pay a half a billion dollars. That’s a lot of money even in the context of the settlements that the federal government had wrangled from financial institutions in the aftermath to the financial crisis. The Settlement Agreement includes a Statement of Facts which RBS has acknowledged. Many settlement agreements do not include such a statement, leaving the dollar amount of the settlement to do all of the talking. We are lucky to see what facts exactly RBS is “acknowledging.”

The Statement of Facts found that assertions in the offering documents for the MBS were inaccurate and the securities have lost billions of dollars in collateral. These losses led to “shortfalls in principal and interest payments, as well as declines in the market value of their certificates.” (Appendix A at 2)

The Statement of Facts outlines just how RBS deviated from the statements it made in the offering documents:

RBS’s Representations to Investors

11. The Offering Documents for the Securitizations included, in varying forms, statements that the mortgage loans were “originated generally in accordance with” the originator’s underwriting guidelines, and that exceptions would be made on a “case-by-case basis…where compensating factors exist.” The Offering Documents further stated that such exceptions would be made “from time to time and in the ordinary course of business,” and disclosed that “[l]oans originated with exceptions may result in a higher number of delinquencies and loss severities than loans originated in strict compliance with the designated underwriting guidelines.”

12. The Offering Documents often contained statements, in varying forms, with respect to stated-income loans, that “the stated income is reasonable for the borrower’s employment and that the stated assets are consistent with the borrower’s income.”

13. The Offering Documents further contained statements, in varying forms, that each mortgage loan was originated “in compliance with applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations.”

14. The Offering Documents also included statements regarding the valuation of the mortgaged properties and the resulting loan-to-value (“LTV”) ratios, such as the weighted-average LTV and maximum LTV at origination of the securitized loans.

15. In addition, the Offering Documents typically stated that loans acquired by RBS for securitization were “subject to due diligence,” often described as including a “thorough credit and compliance review with loan level testing,” and stated that “the depositor will not include any loan in a trust fund if anything has come to the depositor’s attention that would cause it to believe that the representations and warranties of the related seller regarding that loan will not be accurate and complete in all material respects….”

The Actual Quality of the Mortgage Loans in the Securitizations

16. At times, RBS’s credit and compliance diligence vendors identified a number of loans as diligence exceptions because, in their view, they did not comply with underwriting guidelines and lacked adequate compensating factors or did not comply with applicable laws and regulations. Loans were also identified as diligence exceptions because of missing documents or other curable issues, or because of additional criteria specified by RBS for the review. In some instances, RBS disagreed with the vendor’s view. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

17. Additionally, some valuation diligence reports reflected variances between the appraised value of the mortgaged properties and the values obtained through other measures, such as automated valuation models (“AVMs”), broker-price opinions (“BPOs”), and drive-by reviews. In some instances, the LTVs calculated using AVM or BPO valuations exceeded the maximum LTV stated in the Offering Documents, which was calculated using the lower of the appraised value or the purchase price. Certain of these loans were included in the Securitizations.

18. RBS often purchased and securitized loans that were not part of the diligence sample without additional loan-file review. The Offering Documents did not include a description of the diligence reports prepared by RBS’s vendors, and did not state the size of the diligence sample or the number of loans with diligence exceptions or valuation variances identified during their reviews.

19. At times, RBS agreed with originators to limit the number of loan files it could review during its due diligence. Although RBS typically reserved the right to request additional loan-level diligence or not complete the loan purchase, in practice it rarely did so. These agreements with originators were not disclosed in the Offering Documents.

20. Finally, RBS performed post-securitization reviews of certain loans that defaulted shortly after securitization. These reviews identified a number of loans that appeared to breach the representations and warranties contained in the Offering Documents. Based on these reviews, RBS in some instances requested that the loan seller or loan originator repurchase certain loans. (Appendix A at 4-5)

Some of these inaccuracies are just straight-out misrepresentations, so they would not have been caught at the time by regulators, even if regulators had been looking. And that’s why, ten years later, we are still seeing financial crisis lawsuits being resolved.

It is not clear that these types of problems can be kept from infiltrating the capital market once greed overcomes fear over the course of the business cycle. That’s why it is important for individual actors to suffer consequences when they allow greed to take the driver’s seat. We still have not figured out how to effectively address tho individual actions that result in systemic harm.

Blockchain and Securitization

image by  David Stankiewicz

Deloitte prepared a report on behalf of the Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce, Applying Blockchain in Securitization: Opportunities for Reinvention. It opens,

The global financial system is betting on blockchain to revolutionize many aspects of its business, and we (the Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce) believe that securitization is one of the areas in the capital markets that could most benefit from this transformation. Janet Yellen, Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, recently called blockchain “a very important new technology” that “could make a big difference to the way in which transactions are cleared and settled in the global economy.” Financial services institutions have already invested over a billion dollars in the technology, with most big banks likely to have initiated blockchain projects by the end of 2017. There are already hundreds of use cases, ranging from international payments to securities processing, while technology firms including Amazon, Google, and IBM are offering a host of blockchain services aimed at the financial industry.

Why are all of these companies investing in blockchain? This new technology has the potential to dramatically disrupt the role of intermediaries—including that of banks—in financial transactions. Traditional activities performed by intermediaries might be changed or even replaced. Blockchain can also bring significant advances in efficiency, security, and transparency to many of the financial sector’s activities.

*     *     *

The Structured Finance Industry Group and the Chamber of Digital Commerce commissioned Deloitte & Touche LLP (Deloitte) to explore how blockchain might reinvent securitization—and how the securitization industry should consider preparing for this rapidly approaching future. This industry is exploring this nascent technology’s potential benefits and costs. Firm answers on blockchain’s likely use cases are not yet available, but discussions with securitization and blockchain experts have led to some key observations and insights about implications and possible paths forward. (1, footnotes omitted)

The report’s bottom line is that “[b]lockchain and smart contracts could catapult the securitization industry into a new digital age.” (2) It finds that

The technology’s potential to streamline processes, lower costs, increase the speed of transactions, enhance transparency, and fortify security could impact all participants in the securitization lifecycle—from originators, sponsors/issuers, and servicers to rating agencies, trustees, investors, and even regulators. (2)

The report provides a nice overview of blockchain basics for those who find distributed ledger technology to be mysterious. The real value of the report, however, is that it provides concrete guidance on how blockchain can be integrated in the securitization process. There is a chart on page 24 and an explanation of it on the following page that shows this in detail. This level of detail makes it much easier to visualize how blockchain can and most likely will change the nature of the business in years to come.

Ain’t Misrepresentin’

According to Wikipedia, the performers in the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ “present an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous songs that encapsulate the various moods of the era and reflect” a “view of life as a journey meant for pleasure and play.” In U.S. RMBS Roundtable: Arrangers And Investors Discuss The Role Of Representations And Warranties In U.S. RMBS Transactions, S&P does something similar with securitization. It presents the views of industry players as they try to predict and shape the future of the recently emerging private-label RMBS market, in the hopes of “achieving a healthy and sustainable RMBS market.” (2)

ACT I:  Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad

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The piece contains a lot of important insights, including the following point made by investors: “standardizing R&Ws would be a step towards improving the transparency and their ease of understanding. Smaller investors noted that they can be particularly limited in distinguishing R&Ws given the complexities involved.” (3)

This point encapsulates in so many words the classic market for lemons problem, famously formalized by George Akerlof.  The lemon problem leads us to ask how a buyer is to price a purchase where the buyer has less information about the product than the seller.  Because of this information assymetry, the purchaser will assume the worst about the product and offer to buy it with that in mind.

R&Ws are an attempt to overcome that problem because the RMBS arranger or the mortgage originator promises to compensate the investor for lemons that are contained with a mortgage pool securing an RMBS. Consistent with that view, investors noted that “they expected to be compensated for losses caused by origination defects, rather than legitimate life events.” (2) In other words, origination defects are the lemons that should be borne by the arranger/originator with its superior information about the mortgages. And “legitimate life events” represent the credit risk that the investors have signed up for.

ACT II:  That Ain’t Right

Arrangers and originators made the following points:

  1. [o]ne arranger indicated that the R&W process should be governed only by the contractual obligations negotiated for each deal. (2)
  2. [o]riginators have strict underwriting guidelines and said they take great care to follow those procedures before issuing a loan. Arrangers are also currently subjecting all or almost all loans to a third-party due-diligence review. (2)
  3. arrangers said that standardizing R&Ws will not be an easy task as differences between arrangers and product types will limit the degree to which R&Ws can be homogenized. (3)

These points clearly align with the interests of the seller in a market for lemons.  To restate them a bit, 1. caveat emptor; 2. arrangers and originators don’t sell lemons (!); and (3) it is too hard to come up with provisions that consistently protect investors so don’t bother trying.

ENCORE:  Find Out What They Like

S&P notes that there “was broad agreement that one of the keys to achieving a healthy and sustainable RMBS market is aligning the interests of arrangers and investors.” (2) From that broader perspective, S&P is right that the industry should work toward a state of affairs that “minimizes the cost of unknown risks and ultimately reduces losses and related litigation.” (2) Given the spate of lawsuits over reps and warranties, we had fallen shy of that mark in the past (here, for example).  It remains to be seen if the industry can get it better next time and if the incentives are aligned enough to do so.