Risks or not, the accounting treatment is boosting reported profits sharply. At Santa Monica (Calif.)-based FirstFed Financial Corp. (FED ), “deferred interest” — what an outsider might call phantom income — made up 67% of second-quarter pretax profits. FirstFed did not respond to requests for comment. At Oakland (Calif.)-based Golden West Financial Corp. (GDW ), which has been selling option ARMs for two decades, deferred interest made up about 59.6% of the bank’s earnings in the first half of 2006. “It’s not the loan that’s the problem,” says Herbert M. Sandler, CEO of World Savings Bank, parent of Golden West. “The problem is with the quality of the underwriting.”
In the middle of one of the hottest U.S. markets, Coral Gables (Fla.)-based BankUnited Financial Corp. (BKUNA ) posted a $14.8 million loss for the quarter ended June, 2005. Yet it reported record profits of $23.8 million for the quarter ended in June of this year — $20.9 million of which was earned in deferred interest. Some 92% of its new loans were option ARMs. Humberto L. Lopez, chief financial officer, insists the bank underwrites carefully. “The option ARMs have gotten a bit of a raised eyebrow because we generate and book noncash earnings. But…it’s our money, and we do feel comfortable we’ll get it back.”
Even the loans that blow up can be hidden with fancy bookkeeping. David Hendler of New York-based CreditSights, a bond research shop, predicts that banks in coming quarters will increasingly move weak loans into so-called held-for-sale accounts. There the loans will sit, sequestered from the rest of the portfolio, until they’re sold to collection agencies or to investors. In the latter case, a transaction on an ailing loan registers on the books as a trading loss, gets mixed up with other trading activities and — presto! — it vanishes from shareholders’ sight. “There are a lot of ways to camouflage the actual experience,” says Hendler.
To get the deals done, banks have turned increasingly to unregulated mortgage brokers, who now account for 80% of all mortgage originations, double what it was 10 years ago, according to the National Association of Mortgage Brokers. In 2004 banks began offering fatter sales commissions on option ARMs to encourage brokers to push them, says Gail McKenzie, assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta, who is investigating mortgage brokers for improper practices.
The problem, of course, is that many brokers care more about commissions than customers. They use aggressive sales tactics, harping on the minimum payment on an option ARM and neglecting to mention the future implications. Some even imply verbally that temporary teaser rates of 1% to 2% are permanent, even though the fine print says otherwise. It’s easy to confuse borrowers with option ARM numbers. A recent Federal Reserve study showed that one in four homeowners is mystified by basic adjustable-rate loans. Add multiple payment options into the mix, and the mortgage game can be utterly baffling.
Billy and Carolyn Shaw are among the growing ranks of borrowers who have taken out loans they say they didn’t understand. The retired couple from the Salinas (Calif.) area needed to tap about $50,000 in equity from their $385,000 home to cover mounting expenses. Billy, 66, a retired mechanic, has diabetes. Carolyn, 61, has been caring for her grandchildren, 10-year-old twins, since her daughter’s death in 2000. The Shaws have a fixed income of $3,000 a month that will fall by about $1,000 in November after Billy’s disability benefits run out. Their new loan’s minimum payment of about $1,413 is manageable so far, but the fully amortized amount of about $3,329 is out of the question. In a little over a year, they’ve added some $8,500 to their loan balance and now face a big reset if they continue to pay only the minimum. “We didn’t totally understand what was taking place,” says Carolyn. “You have to pay attention. We didn’t, and we’re really stuck here.” The Shaws’ lender, Golden West, says it routinely calls customers to ask them if they are happy and understand their mortgage loan.
Analyst Frederick Cannon of Keefe Bruyette & Woods says most banks don’t apologize for their option ARM businesses. “Almost without exception everyone says [the option ARM] is a great loan, it’s plenty regulated, and don’t bug us,” he says. In an April letter to regulators, Cindy Manzettie, chief credit officer for Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati, said it’s not the “lender’s responsibility to help the consumer determine the appropriate payment option each month…. Paternalistic regulations that underestimate the intelligence of the American public do not work.”
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