updated 3/19/2007 4:39:50 PM ET 2007-03-19T20:39:50

When General Motors Corp.'s fourth-quarter results missed analysts' estimates on Mar. 14, the reason probably took some people by surprise: mortgage loans gone bad. Although the world's No. 1 automaker posted its fattest profits in three years, the news was overshadowed by a $651 million shortfall in its subprime mortgage unit.

In the past few months, subprime specialists New Century Financial, Fremont Realty Capital, NovaStar Financial, Accredited Home Lenders, and at least a dozen others have seen their stocks plummet as they've announced major losses, exited the business, put themselves up for sale, or declared bankruptcy. As the blowups mount, fears are growing that the carnage isn't over. On Mar. 13 the Mortgage Bankers Assn. reported a record percentage of mortgages entering foreclosure in the fourth quarter—news that sent the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index tumbling 2%.

Nonetheless, in the broadest sense, say economists, the economy should be able to withstand the downdraft in the mortgage market. "It's going to have limited impact," says David A. Wyss, chief economist of Standard & Poor's, which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies. But he's quick to add: "That doesn't mean none."

Indeed, the list of losers seems to be growing every day, from the Wall Street banks that extended credit and the investors who gorged on mortgage-backed securities to the shareholders, big and small, of failing lenders. And don't forget the home buyers themselves, who busted their budgets to buy more home than they could afford and now face the possibility of foreclosure. They all stand to suffer in the months ahead.

The good news is that, although the subprime business has grown rapidly in recent years, it remains a small part of the overall mortgage market — 14% of outstanding mortgage loans. And only some subprime loans are in trouble. About 13% were past due in the fourth quarter, the Mortgage Bankers Assn. said. So the most serious damage is confined to a fraction of a sliver of the overall mortgage market. Christopher L. Cagan, chief economist at Santa Ana, Calif.-based First American CoreLogic, projects mortgage defaults of about $300 billion through 2010, just a flea on the nation's $10 trillion housing elephant. And about two-thirds of the losses will be recovered when lenders repossess homes.

Glass housing
Ordinarily, economists get alarmed when subprime does badly, assuming borrowers with weak finances can't make their mortgage payments because the underlying economy is weak. It's different this time because the main culprit is lax underwriting standards. The overall economy is doing reasonably well, creating 97,000 jobs in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate is just 4.5%. Subprime's woes aren't an indicator of deeper-seated problems.

In fact, the prognosis for the "prime" mortgage market seems positive, despite an uptick in defaults. From Feb. 1 through Mar. 8, as the subprime market got sicker, rates on 30-year prime fixed mortgages fell, to 6.14% from 6.34%, according to Freddie Mac. Families are taking advantage of those low rates. The Mortgage Bankers Assn. said on Mar. 14 that its weekly index of applications was up 19% from the same time last year.

Bears worry that the subprime turmoil could deepen the housing slump, stripping a point or two from gross domestic product. The downturn in construction is already the biggest drag on growth, affecting everyone from carpenters and plumbers to furniture salespeople and attorneys. If families with poor credit stop buying because they can't borrow, it will further delay the rebound in homebuilding and associated. David Rosenberg, chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., who is among the more bearish economists on Wall Street, wrote on Mar. 14 that "it is not inconceivable" that house prices will fall 10% this year, which he estimates would cause economic growth to slump to about 1.75% in 2007 from 3.3% in '06. Writes Rosenberg: "That's not a classical recession, but it's what we call a growth recession." Wyss of S&P thinks the weakness in housing, compounded by subprime's problems, will slow economic growth to 2.4%, though he recently raised his estimate of the probability of a recession starting in the next 12 months to 30%, from 25%.

Paradoxically, the flight to the safety Treasuries, sparked in part by the subprime mess, may actually help the overall economy by lowering interest rates. Greg Jensen, co-chief investment officer at Bridgewater Associates Inc., a large manager of institutional investments, wrote in a report to clients on Mar. 14: "Our guess is that the current bond rally will do more to fuel global growth than the subprime problems will do to slow it."

That's not to say the pain won't be severe for those closest to the subprime market's excesses. Subprime borrowers in once-speculative hot spots are especially vulnerable. In markets like Honolulu, Las Vegas, Southern California, Washington, D.C., and much of Florida, mortgage payments account for more than a third of income, vs. the national average of 16%. In California, one in five homeowners forks over more than 50%. These home buyers are "starting to freak out," says Pamela D. Simmons, a real estate attorney in Soquel, Calif., near Santa Cruz. She sees about 20 distressed home buyers a month, up from a handful six months ago.

The lenders that made the riskiest loans—and their employees—are on shaky ground, too. Meanwhile, players in other parts of the credit markets are anxiously watching. "One of the risks is that people panic and take their money home," says Wyss.

If investors continue flocking to the safety of Treasuries, the subprime mess could claim a surprising victim: Private equity firms, which have been issuing gobs of junk bonds and loans to finance the leveraged buyout boom of the past few years. Lower demand for those could dampen the LBO craze, which has been supporting stock prices. So far the dislocations have been minor. Risk premiums for junk debt have increased a bit, says Jensen, but the change is barely visible in multiyear charts. Steven Miller of S&P's leveraged finance unit says it's too early to tell what might happen.

But it's not too early to count the losses among mutual funds, Wall Street banks, and hedge funds, which appear to have been blindsided by the subprime sell-off. Citigroup bought New Century shares just a few weeks before they plunged to 69 cents after the lender stopped making new loans and its credit lines were pulled. Mutual fund companies Vanguard Group and Hotchkis & Wiley Capital Management were also big holders. Hedge fund Farallon Capital Management amassed a 7.8% equity stake in Accredited Home Lenders, whose shares have plunged 85% this year. The funds with biggest stakes in Fremont, whose stock has fallen 59% this year, include Fidelity, Vanguard, and Putnam Investments.

Holders of the individual stocks are hurting, too. Alan Gold, a Chicago area commercial real estate broker, bought New Century shares two years ago. In the past month, New Century has said it would restate its 2006 earnings, disclosed a federal criminal investigation into its accounting practices and trading in its securities, and said the SEC has launched an investigation. "As investors we were innocent bystanders," says Gold, "relying on the audits and the so-called reputation of New Century."

As usual, the worst damage is being felt by those closest to the fire. The larger economy, at least so far, has only been singed.

The biggest winners? Without a doubt, they're the top executives at subprime lenders who sold shares before the collapse. Over the past eight months five directors and officers at New Century sold shares worth about $29 million, with most of the selling coming between August and November, when the stock was flying high. One of the biggest sellers was co-founder and Vice-Chairman Edward F. Gotschall, who grossed in $19.3 million. Gotschall did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The sellers at New Century weren't the only subprime executives heading for the exits before the roof fell in. Edward W. Mehrer, a director of NovaStar Financial Inc., grossed more than $1.1 million from sales from November through January. His last trade was on Jan. 23, when he sold 8,000 shares, generating $172,080 in proceeds. On Feb. 21, NovaStar's stock plunged 43% after it reported an unexpected fourth-quarter loss and offered a dismal outlook for 2007. A NovaStar spokewoman declined to comment.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.


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