Friday, January 30, 2009

Option ARMs See Rising Defaults

--28% option ARM was delinquent in Dec vs 6% prime vs. >50% subprime By RUTH SIMON Defaults on a popular form of mortgage that gave home buyers a choice of how much to pay each month are rising and could rival those on subprime loans, potentially causing more trouble for investors and banks. Nearly $750 billion of option adjustable-rate mortgages, or option ARMs, were issued from 2004 to 2007, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry publication. Rising delinquencies are creating fresh challenges for companies such as Bank of America Corp., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. that acquired troubled option-ARM lenders. Option ARMs typically were made to borrowers with higher credit scores than those getting subprime mortgages. But many of these borrowers were stretched thin even when they were making payments, and are particularly vulnerable to a weakening economy and falling home prices. Borrowers can face payment shock when they must begin making payments of full interest and principal. Often, these loans were taken out without full documentation of borrowers' incomes and assets, and the reported incomes were often overstated, analysts say. Option ARMs are concentrated in areas such as California and Florida that have seen some of the biggest home-price downturns. Option ARMs, which have been largely abandoned, give borrowers multiple payment options, including a minimum payment that often was less than the monthly interest due. Borrowers who made the minimum payment on a regular basis often saw their loan balances grow, also known as "negative amortization." And with home prices falling, more than 55% of borrowers with option ARMs owe more than their homes are valued at, according to J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. As of December, 28% of option ARMs were delinquent or in foreclosure, according to LPS Applied Analytics, a data firm that analyzes mortgage performance. That compares with 23% in September. An additional 7% involve properties that have already been taken back by the lenders. By comparison, 6% of prime loans have problems. Problems with subprime are still the worst. Just over half of subprime loans were delinquent, in foreclosure, or related to bank-owned properties as of December. The nearly $750 billion of option ARMs issued from 2004 to 2007 compares with roughly $1.9 trillion each of subprime and jumbo mortgages in that period. Nearly 61% of option ARMs originated in 2007 will eventually default, according to a recent analysis by Goldman Sachs, which assumed a further 10% decline in home prices. That compares with a 63% default rate for subprime loans originated in 2007. Goldman estimates more than half of all option ARMs outstanding will default. In a recent conference call, Bank of America said it had added $750 million to its impaired portfolio reserves to offset higher-than-expected losses related to its acquisition of Countrywide Financial Corp. The company said the increase "was focused principally in the pay option ARM product." This week, Wells Fargo said $59.8 billion of its "Pick A Payment" option ARM mortgage portfolio was "credit impaired," including $24.3 billion in loans on which the company has taken a credit write-down.

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