As correspondent Scott Pelley reports, it turns out the abyss is deeper than most people think because there is a second mortgage shock heading for the economy. In the executive suites of Wall Street and Washington, you're beginning to hear alarm about a new wave of mortgages with strange names that are about to become all too familiar. If you thought sub-primes were insanely reckless wait until you hear what's coming.
One of the best guides to the danger ahead is Whitney Tilson. He's an investment fund manager who has made such a name for himself recently that investors, who manage about $10 billion, gathered to hear him last week. Tilson saw, a year ago, that sub-prime mortgages were just the start.
"We had the greatest asset bubble in history and now that bubble is bursting. The single biggest piece of the bubble is the U.S. mortgage market and we're probably about halfway through the unwinding and bursting of the bubble," Tilson explains. "It may seem like all the carnage out there, we must be almost finished. But there's still a lot of pain to come in terms of write-downs and losses that have yet to be recognized."
In 2007, Tilson teamed up with Amherst Securities, an investment firm that specializes in mortgages. Amherst had done some financial detective work, analyzing the millions of mortgages that were bundled into those mortgage-backed securities that Wall Street was peddling. It found that the sub-primes, loans to the least credit-worthy borrowers, were defaulting. But Amherst also ran the numbers on what were supposed to be higher quality mortgages.
"It was data we'd never seen before and that's what made us realize, 'Holy cow, things are gonna be much worse than anyone anticipates,'" Tilson says.
The trouble now is that the insanity didn't end with sub-primes. There were two other kinds of exotic mortgages that became popular, called "Alt-A" and "option ARM." The option ARMs, in particular, lured borrowers in with low initial interest rates - so-called teaser rates - sometimes as low as one percent. But after two, three or five years those rates "reset." They went up. And so did the monthly payment. A mortgage of $800 dollars a month could easily jump to $1,500.
Now the Alt-A and option ARM loans made back in the heyday are starting to reset, causing the mortgage payments to go up and homeowners to default.
"The defaults right now are incredibly high. At unprecedented levels. And there's no evidence that the default rate is tapering off. Those defaults almost inevitably are leading to foreclosures, and homes being auctioned, and home prices continuing to fall," Tilson explains.
"What you seem to be saying is that there is a very predictable time bomb effect here?" Pelley asks.
"Exactly. I mean, you can look back at what was written in '05 and '07. You can look at the reset dates. You can look at the current default rates, and it's really very clear and predictable what's gonna happen here," Tilson says.
Just look at a projection from the investment bank of Credit Suisse: there are the billions of dollars in sub-prime mortgages that reset last year and this year. But what hasn't hit yet are Alt-A and option ARM resets, when homeowners will pay higher interest rates in the next three years. We're at the beginning of a second wave.
"How big is the potential damage from the Alt As compared to what we just saw in the sub-primes?" Pelley asks.
"Well, the sub-prime is, was approaching $1 trillion, the Alt-A is about $1 trillion. And then you have option ARMs on top of that. That's probably another $500 billion to $600 billion on top of that," Tilson says.
Asked how many of these option ARMs he imagines are going to fail, Tilson says, "Well north of 50 percent. My gut would be 70 percent of these option ARMs will default."
"How do you know that?" Pelley asks.
"Well we know it based on current default rates. And this is before the reset. So people are defaulting even on the little three percent teaser interest-only rates they're being asked to pay today," Tilson says.