April 30, 2008; Page B4
As the growth in subprime mortgage delinquencies appears to be slowing, lenders are seeing a rapid rise in defaults on a type of mortgage that gives consumers with good credit several different monthly-payment options.
These mortgages, which are sometimes known as "pick-a-pay" or payment-option mortgages but are generically called option adjustable-rate mortgages, are turning out, in some cases, to be even more caustic than subprime loans, in part because the loan balance and the monthly payments on some loans is growing even as home prices are falling.
These loans have become the focus of investigations and a spate of lawsuits by borrowers who believe they were misinformed about the mortgages' complicated structure. Losses on option ARMs could be "in some cases close to subprime" mortgage levels, according to a recent report by Citigroup.
On Tuesday, Countrywide Financial Corp. said that 9.4% of the option ARMs in its bank portfolio were at least 90 days past due, up from 5.7% at the end of December and 1% a year earlier. Countrywide also reported that it had charged off $125 million of these loans in the first quarter, compared with $35 million a quarter earlier. Bank of America Corp. said last week that it will stop making option ARMs altogether after it completes the acquisition of Countrywide Financial, which in recent years has been the largest originator of these loans.
Washington Mutual Inc. reported earlier this month that option ARMs account for 50% of prime loans in its bank portfolio, but 70% of prime nonperforming loans. At Wachovia Corp., non-performing assets in the company's option ARM portfolio, which was acquired with the company's purchase of Golden West Financial Corp., climbed to $4.6 billion in the first quarter from $924 million a year earlier.
Nationwide, delinquencies on subprime loans -- at about 28% as of February, according to First American CoreLogic -- remain much higher than for option ARMs. But recent reports from mortgage securitizations suggest that subprime delinquencies have started going bad at a lower rate while delinquencies on option ARMs are speeding up.
Unlike subprime loans, which went to people with weak credit, option ARMs were generally given to borrowers considered to be lower-risk. But lending standards weakened in recent years and many borrowers now have little or no equity. Many lenders reduced the teaser rates on these loans as home prices climbed, making them appealing to borrowers looking to make the lowest monthly payment possible.
Now, with home prices dropping in California, Florida and other markets where option ARMs were popular, a growing number of borrowers with these loans now owe more than their homes are worth, one reason delinquencies are climbing, lenders say.
Meanwhile, at FirstFed Financial Corp., 30% of borrowers whose loans recast to this higher level fell behind on their payments in the fourth quarter. Most other lenders won't see large numbers of resets until at least 2009 or 2010.
Many borrowers now say they didn't understand the features of the loan. For example, borrowers who make the minimum payment on a regular basis can see their loan balance grow and their monthly payment more than double when they begin making payments of principal and full interest. This typically happens after five years, but can occur earlier if the amount owed reaches a predetermined level -- typically 110% to 125% of the original loan balance.
"My sense is that many option ARM borrowers are in a worse position than subprime borrowers," says Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coaliton, which combats predatory lending. "They wind up owing more and the resets are more significant."
Option ARM sales practices have become the subject of investigations by attorneys general in California, Colorado and Illinois and a number of private lawsuits.
Some borrowers say they weren't suited for these loans or that the terms were poorly disclosed. Edward Marini, a 63-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, took out a $280,000 option ARM from Countrywide Financial when he refinanced the mortgage on his 2,000-square-foot home in Little Egg Harbor, N.J., in 2005, pulling out cash to pay off some debts. "The way I understood it was that I would have a really low payment for five years," says Mr. Marini.
Mr. Marini recently received a note from Countrywide that his payment, now about $1,300 a month, would jump to about $3,800 next year, well above his $3,250 a month in disability payments. Mr. Marini, who owes more than his home is worth, says he was turned down by Countrywide for a refinance and, more recently, for a loan modification. "I didn't think they would even pull this kind of stuff on someone who is on a fixed income," he says.
In a lawsuit seeking class-action status filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Mr. Marini and other borrowers allege that Countrywide put them into option ARMs that were "inappropriate and unsuitable." Mr. Marini wasn't told that his loan balance would rise if he made the minimum payment, says his attorney, Joe Whatley Jr. A Countrywide spokeswoman said the company's policy doesn't comment on pending litigation.
Other borrowers say they were provided with misleading disclosures. "It was a widespread practice for originators not to be honest about the true terms of the loans [in disclosures] to borrowers," says Jeffrey Berns, an attorney in Tarzana, Calif., who has filed lawsuits seeking class-action status against more than 50 companies that sold option ARMs.