I thought this old post from RealMoney.com was lost, never to be found again. This was the important post made on November 22, 2006 that forecast some of the troubles in the subprime residential mortgage backed securities market. I favored the idea that there there would be a crash in residential housing prices, and the best way to play it would be to pick up the pieces after the crash, because of the difficulties of being able to be right on the timing of shorting could be problematic. In that trade, too early would mean wrong if you had to lose out the trade because of margin issues.
With that, here is the article:
I have tried to make the following topic simple, but what I am about to say is complex, because it deals with the derivative markets. It is doubly or triply complex, because this situation has many layers to unravel. I write about this for two reasons. First, since residential housing is a large part of the US economy, understanding what is going on beneath the surface of housing finance can be valuable. Second, anytime financial markets are highly levered, there is a higher probability that there could be a dislocation. When dislocations happen, it is unwise for investors to try to average down or up. Rather, the best strategy is to wait for the trend to overshoot, and take a contrary position.
There are a lot of players trotting out the bear case for residential housing and mortgages. I’m one of them, but I don’t want overstate my case, having commented a few weeks ago on derivatives in the home equity loan asset-backed securities market. This arcane-sounding market is no small potatoes; it actually comprises several billions of dollars’ worth of bets by aggressive hedge funds — the same type of big bettors who blew up so memorably earlier this year, Amaranth and Motherrock.
A shift of just 10% up or down in residential housing prices might touch off just such another cataclysm, so it’s worth understanding just how this “arcane-sounding” market works.
I said I might expand on that post, but the need for comment and explanation of this market just got more pressing: To my surprise, one of my Googlebots dragged in a Reuters article and a blog post on the topic. I’ve seen other writeups on this as well, notably in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer (a fine publication) and The Wall Street Journal.
How a Securitization Works (Basically)
It’s difficult to short residential housing directly, so a market has grown up around the asset-backed securities market, in which bulls and bears can make bets on the performance of home equity loans. How do they do this?
First, mortgage originators originate home equity loans, Alt-A loans and subprime loans. They bring these loans to Wall Street, where the originator sells the loans to an investment bank, which dumps the loans into a trust. The investment bank then sells participation interests (“certificates”) in the trust.
There are different classes of certificates that have varying degrees of credit risk. The riskier classes receive higher interest rates. Typically the originator holds the juniormost class, the equity, and funds an overcollateralization account to give some security to the next most junior class.
Principal payments get allocated to the seniormost class. Once a class gets its full share of principal paid (or cancelled), it receives no more payments. Interest gets allocated in order of seniority. If, after paying interest to all classes, there is excess interest, that excess gets allocated to the overcollateralization account, until the account is full — that is, has reached a value equal to the value of the second most junior class of trust certificates — and then the excess goes to the equity class. If there’s not enough interest to pay all classes, they get paid in order of seniority.
If there are loan losses from nonpayment of the mortgages or home equity loans, the losses get funded by the overcollateralization account. If the overcollateralization account gets exhausted, losses reduce the principal balances of the juniormost certificates — those usually held by the originator — until they get exhausted, and then the next most junior gets the losses. There’s a little more to it than this (the prospectuses are often a half-inch thick on thin paper), but this is basically how a securitization works.
From Hedging to Speculation
The top class of certificates gets rated AAA, and typically the lowest class before the equity gets rated BBB-, though sometimes junk-rated certificates get issued. Most of the speculation occurs in securities rated BBB+ to BBB-.
The second phase of this trade involves credit default swaps (CDS). A credit default swap is an agreement where one party agrees to make a payment to another party when a default takes place, in exchange for regular compensation until the agreement terminates or a default happens. This began with corporate bonds and loans, but now has expanded to mortgage- and asset-backed securities.
Unlike shorting stocks, where the amount of shorting is generally limited by the float of the common stock, there can be more credit default swaps than bonds and loans. What began as a market to allow for hedging has become a market to encourage speculation.
With CDS on corporate debt, it took eight years for the notional size (amount to pay if everyone defaulted) of the CDS market to become 4 times the size of the corporate bond market. With CDS on home equity asset-backed securities, it took less than 18 months to get to the same point.
The payment received for insuring the risk is loosely related to the credit spread on the debt that is protected. Given that the CDS can serve as a hedge for the debt, one might think that the two should be equal. There are a couple reasons that isn’t so.
First, when a default happens, the bond that is the cheapest to deliver gets delivered. That option helps to make CDS trade cheap relative to credit spreads. But a bigger factor is who wants to do the CDS trading more. Is it those who want to receive payment in a default, or those who want to pay when a default occurs?
How It Impacts Housing
With CDS on asset-backed securities, the party writing protection makes a payment when losses get allocated to the tranche in question. Most protection gets written on tranches rated BBB+ to BBB-.
This is where shorting residential housing comes into the picture. There is more interest in shorting the residential housing market through buying protection on BBB-rated home equity asset-backed securities than there are players wanting to take on that risk at the spreads offered in the asset-backed market at present. So, those who want to short the market through CDS asset-backed securities have to pay more to do the trade than those in the cash asset-backed securities market receive as a lending spread.
One final layer of complexity is that there are standardized indices (ABX) for home equity loan asset-backed securities. CDS exists not only for the individual asset-backed securities deals, but also on the ABX indices as well. Those not wanting to do the credit work on a specific deal can act on a general opinion by buying or selling protection on an ABX index as a whole. The indices go down in quality from AAA to BBB-, and aggregate similar tranches of the individual deals. Those buying protection receive pro-rata payments when losses get allocated to the tranches in their index.
So, who’s playing this game? On the side of falling housing prices and rising default rates are predominantly multi-strategy and mortgage debt hedge funds. They are paying the other side of the trade around 2.5% per year for each dollar of home equity asset-backed securities protection bought. (Deals typically last four years or so.) The market players receiving the 2.5% per year payment are typically hedge and other investment funds running collateralized debt obligations. They keep the equity piece, which further levers up their returns. They are fairly yield-hungry, so from what I’ve heard, they’re none too picky about the risks that they take down.
Who wins and who loses? This is tricky, but if residential real estate prices fall by more than 10%, the buyers of asset-backed securities protection will probably win. If less, the sellers of protection probably win. This may be a bit of a sideshow in our overly leveraged financial markets, but the bets being placed here exceed ten billion dollars of total exposure. Aggressive investors are on both sides of this trade. Only one set of them will end up happy.
But how can you win here? I believe the safest way for retail investors to make money here is to play the reaction, should a panic occur. If housing prices drop severely, and home equity loan defaults occur, and you hear of hedge fund failures resulting, don’t act immediately. Wait. Watch for momentum to bottom out, or at least slow, and then buy the equities of financially strong homebuilders and mortgage lenders, those that will certainly survive the downturn.
If housing prices rise in the short run (unlikely in my opinion), and you hear about the liquidations of bearish hedge funds, then the best way to make money is to wait. Wait and let the homebuilders and mortgage finance companies run up, and then when momentum fails, short a basket of the stocks with weak balance sheets.
Why play the bounce, rather than try to bet on the success of either side? The wait could be quite long before either side loses? Do you have enough wherewithal to stay in the trade? Most players don’t; that’s why I think that waiting for one side or the other to prevail is the right course. Because both sides are levered up, there will be an overshoot. Just be there when the momentum fails, and play the opposite side. Personally, I’ll be ready with a list of homebuilders and mortgage lenders with strong balance sheets. Though prospects are not bright today, the best will prosper once the crisis is past.