Posted on Monday, October 18, 2010
One billion dollars? Six billion? Ten billion? More?
A foreclosed home in Miami. The halt in foreclosures may lead to billions in costs for banks.
After scratching their heads for weeks over how much the foreclosure mess will hurt banks’ bottom lines, investors got out their calculators Thursday to tally the potential costs — and sent bank stocks plunging.
Analyst estimates of the possible toll varied widely, but the fear was evident in the stock market. The share price of Bank of America fell 5.2 percent, while shares of JPMorgan Chase sank almost 2.8 percent.
“The market never likes uncertainty, and it seems like every day we’re adding to the list of things we need to worry about with the financials,” said Jason Goldberg, an analyst with Barclays Capital. “The industry needs to work quickly to put this issue behind them.”
Wall Street initially hoped the banks would do just that but as the political furor grew, a quick end to the crisis was looking less and less likely. On Wednesday, 50 state attorneys general announced they were investigating the practices of the mortgage servicing industry, while Florida’s attorney general subpoenaed the nation’s largest mortgage processor, L.P.S., as part of a broader investigation.
In some cases, officials at mortgage servicers signed hundreds of documents a day with barely a chance to review them — the so-called robo-signers — while doubts have arisen about the veracity of the original documents compiled as part of the foreclosure process.
“I don’t see how it can be cleared up in a short period of time,” said Richard X. Bove, an analyst with Rochdale Securities. “The moratorium won’t last that long but the problem will last at least four or five years, maybe a decade.” In the short term, he said, “it could easily cost $1.5 billion per quarter.”
Meanwhile, the foreclosure machinery in many states has ground to a halt. Major institutions like Bank of America, JPMorgan and GMAC Mortgage have halted foreclosures in many states, and have not said when they would resume. As a result, foreclosed homes will remain on the bank’s books while racking up thousands of dollars a month in extra costs.
Until Thursday, Wall Street regarded the foreclosure issue as a risk to the banks’ reputations, rather than their bottom lines. Indeed, some analysts insisted it was unlikely that wide-scale abuses would be found.
“It’s inexcusable that the banks didn’t staff up to meet the surge in foreclosures,” said Christopher Kotowski, an analyst with Oppenheimer. “On the other hand, we need to look at whether they are filing foreclosures on a massive basis against people who are not delinquent. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that they are.”
Inside the investment houses, several traders said nerves were frazzled further by worries that banks could face much bigger mortgage related losses, not from foreclosures, but because of questions about how the money was lent in the first place. If it turns out that mortgages were bundled together and sold improperly, more holders could sue the banks and force them to buy back tens of billions in mortgage-backed securities.
An alarming report on Bank of America, compiled by Branch Hill Capital, a San Francisco hedge fund, circulated widely on Wall Street on Thursday. Branch Hill suggested that the bank, the nation’s largest, could be facing more than $70 billion in losses from mortgage securities that it may have to repurchase from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as private investors.
“We think this is a very important issue, and the liability will be substantial,” said Manal Mehta, a partner at Branch Hill. “There has been pervasive bad behavior throughout the system.” The fund is betting that Bank of America shares could decline because of the potential liability.
Bank of America declined to comment Thursday. But the company’s chief executive, Brian T. Moynihan, said last month at an investor conference that adequate reserves had been taken to protect against any losses that could materialize if it was forced to repurchase mortgage securities. “This will be manageable over time, but it has cost us a lot of money so I’m not making light of it,” he said. “We’ll continue to manage it.”
On Wednesday, JPMorgan said it had added $1 billion to its reserves to cover faulty home loans that it was obligated to repurchase from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and private insurers. It has set aside a total of $3 billion for potential repurchases.
Even if the larger losses envisioned by Mr. Mehta do not materialize, the foreclosure issue remains a worry. In a report, Paul Miller, an analyst with FBR Capital Markets, forecast that the controversy would cost the banking industry $6 billion to $10 billion. He estimated that each month’s delay cost the banks $1,000 per home loan, so if there was a three-month delay on the roughly two million homes currently in foreclosure, that translated into a $6 billion hit.
In addition to the losses directly caused by the delay, Mr. Miller foresees additional charges totaling $3 billion to $4 billion to cover lawsuits stemming from faulty foreclosure procedures.
For now, bank executives are not making any predictions how long the foreclosure halt will last.
“If you’re talking about three or four weeks it will be a blip in the housing market,” said Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, in a conference call on Wednesday. “If it went on for a long period of time, it will have a lot of consequences, most of which will be adverse on everybody.”
NELSON D. SCHWARTZ