Here’s a simple idea: When you invest you should probably actually LOOK at what you’re investing in.
Strangely, some of the most sophisticated investors in the world have been violating this simple idea. Last month at the 2008 ASF conference in Las Vegas, I asked one of payday loan data vendors the Collateralized Debt Obligation (“CDO”) investors who was on a discussion panel if he had any plans to change how he would go about analyzing the collateral underlying CDO’s in the future. In front of maybe 500 people, his answer was a surprising and somewhat defensive, “We have our procedures in place for selecting managers and those won’t change.” Umm. so hang on a second here. My jaw almost hit the floor. Let me get this straight. The CDO market itself is melting down right in front of our eyes and may even (especially in the area of “ABS CDO’s) vanish and go the way of the dinosaur. The contagion effect from sub-prime has infected all other areas of payday loan data vendors the CDO market including those CDOs that have experienced no defaults whatsoever in their underlying collateral such as “Collateralized Loan Obligations” (also known as “CLO’s”) and this guy is telling me he isn’t going to change the way he operates. I’d bet that this guy is gonna vanish along with all of the CDO’s out there that are imploding right now.
Well I’ll be!! I didn’t know what I expected to hear but “do nothing” was the last thing I expected to hear.
So let’s see what I mean by “looking” at what you’re investing in:
For ABS bond investors, this would mean being able to look through to the underlying loans and see what this stuff is that is behind the ABS bond payments. See all the characteristics of all of those loans such as mortgage type, FICO scores, original appraisal values, interest rates on the mortgages, geographic distribution, who originated the loans, who is servicing the loans – in short, all of the standard attributes. A lot of this information can be found in the original prospectus for the bonds. It also means realizing that very quickly the “origination” data becomes stale quite fast. In particular, the FICO scores and the original property appraisal values get stale. Because the data vendors that are out there such as Loan performance and Intex do not give you updated property values what should you do when a deal has 2005 loan originations and here it is 2008? Here are a few things:
1. Get “Home Price Index” data from various places such as OFHEO’s web site (free); Case Shiller (S&P bought them and has freebie data for some areas of the states); purchase a subscription to the non-freebie Case Shiller indices or go out to one of the other vendors such as Loan Performance’s new Home Price Indices which are supposed to be quite good or Radar Logic’s indexes etc. In short, you’re trying to find something that will tell you how homes, in general, have been performing in the area that the loans backing your particular ABS are in? That way you can possibly work out:
a. what is the current estimate of home value right now.
b. use some basic projection formulas to work out what values could be into the future.
These things are being doing by quite a few people, but not enough people do it because they don’t have access to a full database of expensive Loan Performance or Intex data and so they are, to that degree, flying blind and depend on others for their research and analysis and “transparency” into the deals themselves.
2. Another thing to do is to retrieve ALL loans from that Zip code across ALL securitized deals – not just the single ABS bond you’re analyzing – and look at the # of loans and the payment status of each of those loans (Current, 30 days delinq, 60 days delinq, 90+ days delinq, Foreclosure or REO) to try to gauge how affected is that particular zip code by the sub-prime mortage market crash. Also, you could use some mapping services to find out exactly where that Zip is. Is it in a highly populated area etc? Keep in mind that the services provided by Loan Performance give you only the securitized loan database. Many investment firms also have a whole other “inventory” of loans that were never securitized and these loans will not be getting reported on by Loan Performance or Intex. But it’s definitely better than nothing and should serve to give you a better idea of what’s out there in your loan’s particular zip code and the surrounding areas.
3. Items #1 and #2 above can only really give you an estimate of the value of the homes because none of those data vendors give you data that has a “finer granularity” than the zip code of the individual loans. This means that you do NOT have a property address. Sounds somewhat reasonable because giving the property address probably violates some sort of privacy information laws. Ok, fair enough. So what if you really want to nail it down closer then the guestimate in steps 1 and 2. Is there any way around this without violating any laws? Well, there are now data vendors appearing on the scene who will sell you a “county records” database. It’s expensive as hell. A cool annual subscription from one vendor of 1 million USD and from another 1.2 to 1.5 million. This database gives you detailed information about loans in a particular area and is publicly available information about who owns a particular property. Right down to the street address, when the loan was originated and the size of the loan etc. Wow! Not bad.