Sub-prime lenders send jitters through global markets

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Just two weeks after China sent global markets into a tumble, growing worries about sub-prime mortgage lenders in the United States are sending jitters through stock exchanges around the globe. The three major US stock market indices each fell two percent from Monday's closing price, marking the second-biggest loss of 2007. London's FTSE 100, Paris' CAC 40 and Frankfurt's DAX 30 indices each closed down more than 1 percent.

As the Mortgage Bankers Association reported that late payments on mortgages and home foreclosures in the US homes rose in the fourth quarter to their highest level in years, investors are concerned that not only US banks but also multi-national banks around the globe could have exposure.

More than two dozen sub-prime lenders have closed or sold operations as defaults on those mortgages have risen. "The delinquencies and defaults have started to soar," said Nicolas Retsinas, director of Housing Studies at Harvard University. "A lot of these lenders started to make loans and lost track of some of the fundamentals."

New Century Financial Corporation, the second largest sub-prime lender in the US, has recently revealed that its creditors were no longer providing funds and, further, it has become subject of an SEC investigation. The New York Stock Exchange has said it will delist New Century. Accredited Home Loan Lending, another major sub-prime mortgage specialist, said it was seeking fresh capital and waivers on its lending covenants.

Sub-prime lenders provide mortgages to people who do not qualify for loans from mainstream lenders, typically due to their credit histories. The lenders then bundle these mortgages as collateral for loans that they obtain from other financing firms, such as GMAC. Such firms can then repackage these loans and sell them as mortgage-backed securities. These securities may end up in the hands of major multi-national banks such as Citibank, HSBC, and Commerzbank. Each level of lending assumes a level of financial risk, but trouble can arise when the risk tolerances are exceeded. If too many homeowners default on their mortgages, the sub-prime lender can end up defaulting. If too many of these lenders default, as it is feared may be happening now, the defaults can cascade upward. While no one is predicting major bank failures at this point, it is feared that their profits could be hurt.

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