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Univ. of Arkansas, Fayetteville

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Mortgages in a Downward Spiral

The NY Times has an interesting article on the tough times hitting the mortgage business, especially lenders who focused on the subprime market.  An excerpt:

Just as the technology boom of the late 1990s turned twenty-something programmers into dot-com billionaires, and leveraged buyouts a decade earlier turned Wall Street bankers into Masters of the Universe, the explosive growth in subprime lending turned mortgage bankers and brokers into multimillionaires seemingly overnight.

Now an escalating crisis in the market, which seemed to reach a new crescendo late last week, is threatening a wide band of people. Foremost are the poor and minority homeowners who used easy credit to buy houses that are turning out to be too expensive for them now that mortgage rates are going up, but the pain is also being felt widely throughout the business world.

Large companies that bought subprime lenders during the boom, like H&R Block and HSBC, are now scrambling to sell them or scale back their exposure. Many investors are also likely to suffer: Wall Street firms made billions in fees, commissions and trading revenue from packaging and selling subprime mortgages to them as bonds.

New Century has emerged as a poster child for the lenders that rode that boom to the top and are now in free fall. The company disclosed on Friday that federal prosecutors and securities regulators were investigating stock sales and accounting errors. The latter could jeopardize billions of dollars in financing for the company, which issued $39.4 billion in subprime loans in the first nine months of last year.

Weakening home prices and rising default rates have rocked the subprime business. But for those who cashed out before the market turned, the ride up was particularly sweet. The three founders of New Century, for example, together made more than $40.5 million in profits from selling shares in the company from 2004 to 2006, according to an analysis by Thomson Financial. They collected millions of dollars more in dividends, salaries, bonuses and perks.

The company said in a statement yesterday that the founders were “still significant shareholders,” noting that they collectively owned about 7 percent of the company at the end of last year.

New Century’s stock price, which seemed to mirror the trajectory of the subprime business, peaked at nearly $66 a share in December of 2004 and traded in the $40s most of last year; on Friday, it was trading at $11 a share after the market closed. In a series of sales from August to November, two of the company’s founders sold shares for an average price of about $40 a share, for a total profit of $21.4 million.

We've discussed the downward trend, and potential litigation fallout, before.

Ben Barros

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