'Liar loans' prolong trouble

Foreclosure crisis could continue for 2 more years

Associated Press / August 19, 2008
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In the mortgage industry, they are called "liar loans" - mortgages approved without requiring proof of the borrower's income or assets. The worst of them earn the nickname "ninja loans," short for "no income, no job, and (no) assets."

The nation's struggling housing market, already awash in subprime foreclosures, is now getting hit with a second wave of losses as homeowners with liar loans default in record numbers. In some parts of the country, the loans are threatening to drag out the mortgage crisis for another two years.

"Those loans are going to perform very badly," said Thomas Lawler, a Virginia housing economist. "They're heavily concentrated in states where home prices are plummeting" such as California, Florida, Nevada, and Arizona.

Many homeowners with liar loans are stuck. They can't refinance because housing prices in those markets have nose-dived, and lenders are now demanding full documentation of income and assets.

Losses on liar loans could total $100 billion, according to Moody's That's on top of the $400 billion in expected losses from subprime loans.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the nation's largest buyers and backers of mortgages, lost a combined $3.1 billion between April and June. Half of their credit losses came from sour liar loans, which are officially called Alternative-A loans because they are seen as a step below A-credit, or prime, borrowers.

Many of the lenders that specialized in such loans are now defunct - American Home Mortgage, Bear Stearns, and IndyMac Bank. More lenders may follow. The mortgage bankers and brokers who survived were more cautious, but acknowledge they too were swept up in the housing hysteria to some extent.

"Everybody drank the Kool-Aid" said David Zugheri, cofounder of Texas-based lender First Houston Mortgage. They knew if they didn't give the borrower the loan they wanted, the borrower "could go down the street and get that loan somewhere else."

The loans were also immensely profitable for the mortgage industry because they carried higher fees and higher interest rates.

During the housing boom, liar loans were especially popular among investors seeking to flip properties quickly. They were also commonly paired with "interest only" features that allowed borrowers to pay just the interest on the debt and none of the principal for the first several years.

Even riskier were "pick-a-payment" or option ARM loans - adjustable-rate mortgages that gave borrowers the choice to defer some of their interest payments and add them to the principal.

While some borrowers were aware of their risky features and used them to gamble on their home's value or pull out money for vacations, others like Salvatore Fucile insist they were victims of predatory lending.

Fucile, who is 82, and his wife, Clara, wound up in an option ARM from IndyMac after consolidating two mortgages on their suburban Philadelphia home. Fucile was attracted by the low monthly payments, but says the mortgage broker didn't tell him the principal balance could increase. It has risen about $24,000 to $276,000.

FDIC spokesman David Barr declined to discuss the case, but said the agency has temporarily frozen all IndyMac foreclosures and is working on a plan to modify mortgages held by the bank.

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