Image: Sharren McGarry
Christina M.M. Gillin  /  for msnbc.com
With 16 years' experience in the mortgage business, Sharren McGarry didn’t believe the “pay option” loan was a good deal for most of her customers, so she didn’t promote it. “I looked at it and I thought: I’m 60 years old. If I were in these peoples’ situation 10 years from now, where would I be?”
By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 12/10/2008 9:01:43 PM ET 2008-12-11T02:01:43

Some time after Sharren McGarry went to work as a mortgage consultant at Wachovia’s Stuart, Fla., branch in July 2007, she and her colleagues were directed to market a mortgage called the “Pick A Pay” loan.  Sales commissions on the product were double the rates for conventional mortgages, and she was required to make sure nearly half the loans she sold were "Pick A Pay," she said.

These “pay option” adjustable-rate mortgages gave borrowers a choice of payments each month. They also carried a feature that came as a nasty surprise to some borrowers, called "negative amortization." If the homeowner opted to pay less than the full monthly amount, the difference was tacked onto the principal. When the loan automatically “recasted” in five or 10 years, the owner would be locked into a new, much higher, set monthly payment.

While McGarry balked at selling these pay-option ARMs, other lenders and mortgage brokers were happy to sell the loans and pocket the higher commissions.

Now, as the housing recession deepens, a coming wave of payment shocks threatens to bring another surge in defaults and foreclosures as these mortgages “recast” to higher monthly payments over the next two years.

“The next wave (of foreclosures) is coming next year and in 2010, and that is primarily due to these pay-option ARMS and the five-year, adjustable-rate hybrid ARMS that are coming up for reset,” said William Longbrake, retired vice chairman of Washington Mutual. The giant Seattle-based bank, which collapsed this year under the weight of its bad mortgage loans, was one of the biggest originators of pay-option ARMs during the lending boom.

The next wave may be even more difficult to handle than the last one.

“It’s going to get tougher to modify loans as these option ARMs come into their resets," Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairwoman Sheila Bair told msnbc.com this week. "Those are more difficult than the subprime and traditional adjustable rates to modify because there is such a huge payment differential when they reset."

Monthly quota: 45 percent
With 16 years of experience in the mortgage business, McGarry didn’t believe the “pay option” loan was a good deal for most of her customers, so she didn’t promote it.

“I looked at it and I thought: I’m 60 years old. If I were in these peoples’ situation 10 years from now, where would I be?” she said. “Do I want to be in a position that 10 years from now I can’t make this higher payment and I’m forced to make this payment and be forced out of my home? So I wouldn’t do it.”

Her job description included a requirement that she meet a monthly quota of Pick A Pay mortgages, something she said wasn’t spelled out when she was hired. Still, she said, she continued to steer her customers to conventional loans, even though her manager “frequently reminded me that my job requirement was that I do 45 percent of my volume in the Pick A Pay loan.”

In June 2008, her manager wrote a “Corrective Action and Counseling” warning, saying she wasn’t meeting the bank’s “expectation of production.” McGarry soon left Wachovia after finding a job with another mortgage company. On June 30, the bank stopped selling mortgages with negative amortization. In October Wachovia, suffering from heavy mortgage-related losses, agreed to be acquired by Wells Fargo.

A spokesman for Wachovia said that generally the bank doesn't comment on internal marketing policies. But he said commissions on Pick A Pay mortgages were higher because the loans were more complicated and required more work to originate. He also noted that when Wachovia's Pick A Pay loans recast, the payment increase is capped for any given year, which helps ease borrowers' burden of meeting a higher payment.

The first wave of home foreclosures that hit in late 2006 and early 2007 followed the resetting of subprime adjustable mortgages with two- and three-year "teaser rates" written during the height of the lending boom earlier in the decade. But pay-option ARMs — which often don't "recast" for five years — have a longer fuse. Unless defused by aggressive public and private foreclosure prevention programs, the bulk of these loans will explode to higher payments in 2009 and 2010.

The scope of the problem was highlighted in September in a study by Fitch Ratings, one of the bond rating agencies that assesses the risk of defaults on mortgage-backed investments. Of the $200 billion in option ARMs outstanding, Fitch estimates that some $29 billion will recast in 2009 and another $67 billion in 2010. That could cause delinquencies on these loans to more than double, Fitch said.

To make matters worse, only 17 percent of option ARMs written from 2004 to 2007 required full documentation. Many of the borrowers who took out these loans also took out a second mortgage, which means they likely have little or no equity in their home, according to the report. That means many could owe more than their house is worth when the loan recasts to unaffordable payments.

Heavy losses from investments backed by pay option ARMs were a major cause of the demise of Wachovia and Washington Mutual, one of the largest originators of option ARMs during the height of the lending bubble. (Washington Mutual was seized by the FDIC in September, which arranged for the sale of its assets to JPMorgan Chase. Wachovia was acquired in October by Wells Fargo, which outbid Citibank after it arranged a deal with the FDIC to acquire Wachovia.)

Since the housing bubble began to deflate in 2006, roughly 3 million homes have been lost to foreclosure. Over the next two years, another 3.6 million are expected to lose their homes, according to Moody’s Economy.com chief economist Mark Zandi.

Many of the most problematic loans — those sold with a two- or three-year low “teaser” rates — have already reset to higher levels. Those resets have been a major force in the first wave of foreclosures, which rose from 953,000 in 2006 to nearly 1.8 million last year and are on track to hit 3.1 million this year, according to First American CoreLogic, which tracks real estate data.

And the pace of foreclosures is still climbing. More than 259,000 U.S. homes received at least one foreclosure-related notice in November, up 28 percent from the same month last year, according to RealtyTrac.

Though the pace dropped slightly from the previous month, there are indications "that this lower activity is simply a temporary lull before another foreclosure storm hits in the coming months," said RealtyTrac CEO James Saccacio.

Mortgage delinquencies — homeowners who have fallen behind but not yet been hit with foreclosure — are also on the rise, according to the latest quarterly survey from the Mortgage Bankers Association. A record one in 10 American households with mortgages was overdue on payments or in foreclosure as of the end of September.

The impact is being felt unevenly across the country. Foreclosures are clustered in states that saw the biggest expansion in lending and home building. In Nevada, one in every 74 homes was hit with a foreclosure filing last month. Arizona saw one in every 149 housing units receive a foreclosure filing, and in Florida it was one in every 157 homes. California, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio have also been hard hit.

“In the neighborhoods that have concentrations of subprime loans you already have concerns about crashing neighborhoods with too many vacant houses and crime rises,” said Longbrake. “The same thing will be true for these option ARMs. They are concentrated in particular neighborhoods and particular locales around the country."

Developed in the late 1980s, pay-option ARMs were written at first only for borrowers who showed they couldafford the full monthly payment. But during the height of the lending boom, underwriting standards were lowered to qualify borrowers who could only afford the minimum payment, according to Longbrake.

College savings made easy
McGarry says she was encouraged to promote the idea that with a Pick A Pay loan the borrower could pay less than the full monthly payment and set aside the difference for savings or investment. The pitch included sales literature comparing two brothers. One took the Pick A Pay loan, made the minimum payment and put money in the bank. The second brother got a conforming loan. Five years later, both brothers needed to pay their children’s college tuition.

“(The brother with the conforming loan) didn’t have the money in the bank,” said McGarry.  “And the brother that had the pay-option ARM could go to the bank and withdraw the money and didn’t have to refinance his mortgage. That’s how they sold it.”

McGarry said the sales pitch downplayed the impact of negative amortization. When the loan principal swells to a set threshold — typically between 110 and 125 percent of the original loan amount — the mortgage automatically “recasts” to a higher, set monthly payment that many borrowers would have a hard time keeping up with.

Fitch estimates that the average potential payment increase would be 63 percent, or about $1,053 a month — on top of the current average payment of $1,672.

The impact on the millions of American families losing their homes is devastating. But the foreclosure fallout is being felt around the world. As the U.S. slides deeper into recession, foreclosures are the root cause of a downward spiral that threatens to prolong and widen the economic impact:

  • As the pace of foreclosures rises, the glut of homes on the market pushes home prices lower. That erodes home equity for all homeowners, draining consumer spending power and further weakening the economy.
  • The overhang of unsold homes also depresses the home building industry, one of the major engines of growth in a healthy economy.
  • As home values decline, investors and lenders holding bonds backed by mortgages book steeper losses. Banks holding mortgage-backed investments hoard cash, creating a credit squeeze that acts as a bigger drag on the economy.
  • The resulting pullback in consumer and business spending brings more layoffs. Those layoffs put additional homeowners at risk of defaulting on their mortgages, and the cycle repeats.

"Foreclosures are going to mount and the negative self-reinforcing cycle will accelerate," said Zandi. "It's already happening, but it will accelerate in a lot more parts of the country."

As pay-option ARMs put more homeowners under pressure, other forces are combining to increase the risk of mortgage defaults. As of the end of September, the drop in home prices had left roughly one in five borrowers stuck with a mortgage bigger than their house is worth, according to First American CoreLogic. In a normal market, homeowners who suffer a financial setback can tap some of the equity in their home or sell their home and move on.

“That’s a big issue,” said Mark Fleming, First American CoreLogic’s chief economist. “As equity is being destroyed in the housing markets, more and more people are being pushed into a negative equity position. That means that they’re not going to have the option for sale or refinance if they hit hard times."

“Negative equity” is also a major roadblock in negotiations between lenders and homeowners trying to modify their loan terms.

After over a year of debate in Congress, and private efforts by lenders, no one has come up with the solution to the thorniest part of the problem: Who should take the hit for the trillions of dollars of home equity lost since the credit bubble burst?

“(Customers) keep calling and saying ‘With this bailout, this isn’t helping me at all,’” said McGarry, who is now working with clients trying modify or refinance their loans. “It really and truly is not helping them. If their lender will not agree to settle for less than they owe — even though those lenders are on the list of lenders that will work with you — they still are not working with (the borrower).”

It’s a monumental undertaking that was never anticipated when servicers took on the task of managing these mortgage portfolios. These companies are already struggling to keep up with the volume of calls, and defaults are projected to keep rising. They’re also swamped with calls from desperate homeowners who are falling behind on their monthly payments.

“We have never seen anything this large before; we make 5 million phone calls a month to reach out to borrowers,” said Tom Morano, CEO of Residential Capital, the loan servicing unit of GMAC. “The volume of calls that’s coming in is much higher than it has ever been, and everybody is struggling with that.”

Now, as the spiral of falling home prices is exacerbated by rising unemployment, millions of homeowners who were on a solid financial footing when they signed their loan face the prospect of a job loss that would put them at risk of foreclosure. Some servicers say that’s the biggest wild card in projecting how many more Americans will lose their homes.

“The concern I have is if we have an economy where unemployment gets to 8 or 9 percent,” said Morano. “If that happens the amount of delinquencies is going to be staggering.”

With the latest monthly data showing more than half a million jobs were lost in November, some economists now believe the jobless rate could rise from the current 6.7 percent to top 10 percent by the end of next year.

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