NEW YORK — American Home Mortgage Investment Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday and two other mortgage lenders said they were not accepting new applications, signs that the worst housing crunch in decades could be widening.
American Home Mortgage, based in Melville, N.Y., and once the nation’s 10th largest mortgage lender, said it fell victim to “extraordinary disruptions” that effectively cut off the funding it needed to make new loans. Falling home prices and a spike in payment defaults scared investors away from mortgage debt, including bonds and other securities backed by home loans.
Houston-based Aegis Mortgage Corp. said it would not accept any more applications and said it could not meet all of its existing funding obligations. Cleveland-based National City Corp. also stopped taking applications for new loans and lines of credit in its wholesale home equity unit.
“We are in a market now where value is a fleeting concept,” JMP Securities analyst Steven C. DeLaney said of the vanishing appetite among investors for the bundles of mortgage debt that had been the funding lifeline for the industry. “The market today has just basically shut down.”
As the market for mortgage debt suddenly shrinks, people trying to borrow for home purchases or refinance their existing homes are facing tougher terms and stricter standards — and are much more likely to be turned down than just a few months ago, when the industry was pushing loans even at buyers with bad credit histories.
American Home Mortgage filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Wilmington, Del. Its 40 biggest creditors include virtually all the major names of Wall Street. At the top of the list are Deutsche Bank AG and JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Deutsche Bank had no comment. JPMorgan Chase declined to comment on its exposure.
In a statement, American Home said it lined up $50 million in debtor-in-possession financing from WL Ross & Co. LLC. WL Ross is led by billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who has rescued failed companies in the steel, coal and textile industries.
The company hired Stephen F. Cooper to be chief restructuring officer. Cooper was also chief restructuring officer for Enron Corp.
While bankrupt lenders carry ominous implications for the housing market and for consumers hoping to take out mortgages, they do not affect the status of mortgage loans already on the books.
A bankrupt lender simply means financial institutions will likely buy the company’s loans as its assets are auctioned off; it does not imperil people’s homes.
Likewise, Ganesh Rathnam, an analyst who tracks investment banks for Morningstar, said he does not expect Wall Street to sustain much damage from American Home, which has less than $20 billion in liabilities.
“The Wall Street banks will go and look for their next source of income, whatever that is,” he said. “It is not going to bankrupt them.”
American Home Mortgage joins more than 50 lenders in bankruptcy this year. It is bigger than most of the other lenders to go out of business so far, second only to New Century Financial Corp.
But unlike New Century and most other bankrupt lenders, American Home Mortgage was not a “subprime” lender. Subprime lenders cater to home buyers with spotty credit. Almost none of American Home Mortgage’s $58.9 billion in home loans last year were to subprime borrowers.
Yet like other subprime lenders, American Home’s decline was quick.
Last week, the company said many of its lenders wanted their money back and it was unable to deliver as much as $800 million in promised loans. It then laid off almost 90 percent of its 7,000 employees.
Houston-based Aegis Mortgage, whose owners include private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, said Monday it notified brokers who serve as customers that Aegis would not be able to fund loans currently in the pipeline.
Aegis Mortgage spokeswoman Pat Wente said the company’s roughly 30 U.S. branches were open and its 1,300 workers on the job.
“We’ve just announced we’re going to have to suspend lending until we get this figured out,” she said. “We’re in the process of reviewing all the alternatives we can.”
National City said the decision to stop taking applications in its wholesale unit is one of a number of steps “taken in recent weeks to help ensure that originations are in line with existing and anticipated market conditions.” National City Home Equity offers loans and lines of credit through brokers that can be used with the purchase of a home or the refinancing of one. National City is still accepting applications for such loans at its bank branches.
Separately, NovaStar Financial Inc. on Monday confirmed it temporarily halted home loans through brokers but said it was honoring existing commitments.
Friedman Billings Ramsey analyst Scott Valentin cut his price target on the company’s stock to zero, saying suspending loans lays the groundwork for shutting down.
Also Monday, Luminent Mortgage Capital Inc. said it has been experiencing a significant increase in margin calls and a decrease in the amount of financing available from its lenders.
San Francisco-based Luminent said its was suspending the company’s second-quarter dividend of 32 cents per share and was considering a “full range of strategic alternatives” to address its liquidity issues.
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