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Bending the Rules

Efforts to contain damage from the subprime-mortgage meltdown are stretching accounting rules for securitization.

Last December, as they unveiled a plan to freeze the interest rates on thousands of subprime mortgages, President George Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. emphasized the shared interest among homeowners, banks, and investors. Thousands of people, the President said, were in danger of losing their homes, while “lenders and investors would face enormous losses.”

But the plan puts banks in the driver’s seat. It allows them to declare large swaths of mortgages in danger of default and to rewrite them — even though those mortgages are securitized and technically are owned by investors. What’s more, the banks can now redo home loans without sign-off from homeowners or investors.

This marks a big departure from prior practice. Until recently, banks have operated as little more than bill collectors for securitized mortgages, stepping in to rework them only if they were in actual default. This largely passive role was mandated by FAS 140, the accounting rule that specifies the conditions for keeping securitized assets off balance sheets. That was a potentially serious stumbling block for the plan, which was drafted by the American Securitization Forum (ASF), a banking-industry trade group.

In January, however, the chief accountant of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Conrad Hewitt, blessed the plan by issuing a flexible interpretation of FAS 140 that allows banks to take a more active role, yet maintains the off-balance-sheet status quo. The looser accounting seems to be acceptable to industry and regulators alike — primarily because the alternatives are unthinkable.

Those alternatives, of course, include many more people losing their homes. For banks, the fear is that a strict accounting construction could force them to consolidate billions of dollars worth of securitized loans onto their balance sheets. That, in turn, could expose them to billions more in liabilities stemming from investor lawsuits.

One thing seems certain: the bending of accounting rules will further erode investor confidence in the practice of securitization.

In a securitization, a lender sells the future proceeds of a loan to a trust, or special-purpose entity (SPE). The trust pools them with other loan proceeds and issues bonds backed by the payments. Under FAS 140, the lender must make a “true sale” to the trust, so that the trust is the actual owner of the loan proceeds. That allows the lender that originally made the loan to remove it from its balance sheet.

After Enron, which frequently set up SPEs that it secretly controlled, FASB issued stricter guidelines for such trusts. Now, for an SPE to remain off the books, its activities must be limited strictly to passively receiving and disbursing securitized funds. Such trusts are known as qualifying SPEs, or QSPEs.

But that passive role — QSPEs are variously described as “brain-dead” or “on autopilot” — came under fire as the subprime crisis grew. Because banks merely acted as servicers of the loans, they initially resisted calls to work with borrowers or restructure loans, for fear that doing so would violate the QSPE structure.

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