Will More Problems With Alt-A Loans Get Swept Under The Rug?

It seems almost a bit old fashioned to write a column about Alt-A loans and more downgrades to classes of those loans. Almost like we’ve moved on from that and it’s just a question of mopping up the mess.

HousingWire has a report that puts a distinctly different light on that.

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services said earlier this week that its ratings on 9,430 classes from 1,077 U.S. first-lien Alt-A RMBS transactions issued in 2005, 2006, and 2007 had been placed on CreditWatch with negative implications — otherwise translated as “downgrade imminent.” The affected classes had an original par amount of approximately $552.83 billion, and have a current principal balance of $445.43 billion, the rating agency said.

You ask so what and so did HousingWire. We are all getting a bit cavalier about these things. Sort of “been there, done that, got the T-shirt.” They provide a pretty good, succinct answer to why this matters.

A review of the thousands upon thousands of classes by HousingWire shows that roughly half of the at-risk bonds are currently rated AAA by the rating agency; downgrades to securities rated AAA are likely to lead to further write-down pressure for banks and insurers already hard-hit by ratings downgrades.

The bottom line here is this: for all of the pain felt in this area already, plenty of banks large and small are still generally carrying securities on their books at a level justifiable against current ratings levels (how many investor presentations have we seen in recent months touting the percentage of securities held rated AAA?). Would-be buyers know the securities aren’t worth the AAA rating they’ve got, and frankly so too do any would-be sellers, but nobody can sell a security still at AAA at C-level prices, and then justify the hit that so doing would have on the rest of their books.

With many of these AAA high-fliers falling officially off their perch, that dynamic appears set to change further.

The rating agencies are once again going to cause the financial system to fess up to the reality of their balance sheets. Maybe. When you see reports like this and then put them along side calls for suspension of mark-to-market accounting the government’s approach starts to become a bit clearer.

Simon Johnson wrote a piece this morning for the Baseline Scenario in which he suggests that the official government policy is now to wait. They see or want to see tiny improvements in the situation and assume that time is their best ally. The potential for something blind siding the plan is dismissed.

I would add to his thesis that in addition to waiting, they policy prescription includes papering over any unwanted surprises. Change the rules in order to ignore the effects of advesrse developments. Make the reality of Alt-A quality disappear in effect.

When you’re out of money and options, or think you are, hope is what you fall back on.

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