Archive for December, 2010

Mortgage lenders now advertising as crisis solvers

Friday, December 31st, 2010 | Finance News

FOOTHILL RANCH, Calif. – PacWest Funding's CEO watched in late 2007 as rival mortgage brokerages, banks and collaborators collapsed under the weight of the declining housing market.

Fearing his company would be next, Curtis Melone restructured his business to offer what he felt people needed most: help with their crushing mortgage debt.

Melone re-christened his company Green Credit Solutions, a loan modification firm dedicated to aiding people facing rapidly ballooning payments on loans many of them couldn't afford in the first place.

The journey from subprime-era lender into purported troubled homeowners' helper has been a common post-meltdown path in the mortgage industry hotbed of Southern California.

Loan brokers put out of work by the housing market collapse went looking for the next big thing — and found it in the mortgage modification business, which provided a way of cashing in on the problems they helped create.

Many of those firms, including Green Credit Solutions, have been shut down and are now facing state and federal investigations trying to prove that they bilked their customers.

"Some of the same people who were involved in luring people into loan origination schemes years ago are now back," said Benjamin B. Wagner, a Fresno-based U.S. attorney who co-chairs a nationwide multi-agency mortgage fraud task force.

For example, Bernardette Perry was banned by a judge from working in the loan-modification industry after she helped transform Fountain Valley-based lender Synergy Financial Management Corp. into a foreclosure relief firm called Loss Mitigation Services Inc. Regulators say it did little to help the 1,400 clients it took on after they'd paid up to $5,500 apiece.

But that's dwarfed by Green Credit, which had some 6,400 separate loan modification files in its Foothill Ranch offices when they were raided by state officials in late 2009.

The company had placed itself at the apex of a national network of brokers who fed it clients and made it perhaps the largest loan modification company to attract legal scrutiny, investigators said.

"The volume and the way they branched out ... they were kind of at the center of it," said California bar investigator John Noonen, who led the raid.

California's attorney general began investigating Green Credit after customers complained they each paid thousands of dollars for loan workouts that never happened. The state Department of Real Estate also filed allegations that prompted Melone and other company officials to surrender their real estate licenses in April.

Attorney general spokeswoman Becca MacLaren said no criminal charges have been filed but her office's investigation is ongoing.

Melone, 36, declined to be interviewed, though a former company loan salesman gave some insight into PacWest, which was established in 2003, and its evolution into Green Credit.

"There wasn't a lot of outright fraud going on (at PacWest) but there was certainly a lot of stuff where they would exaggerate the income," said the salesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared his involvement with the companies would hurt his future job prospects. "You didn't have to have a job. You could still get financing. You just had to pretend to have a job."

Among the mortgages PacWest peddled were adjustable-rate loans with low teaser rates that could have left borrowers in dire financial straits when they later ballooned to much higher levels, he said.

When the demand for the mortgage derivatives came to an abrupt halt in 2007, Green Credit advertised aggressively for brokers who could deliver struggling customers.

For many mortgage brokers who were seeing their own business dry up as credit and home sales became scarce, Green Credit was a lifeline: Instead of charging to write mortgages for lenders, they could get paid to arrange modifications.

In return for brokers' files, they kept a cut of the $3,450 Green Credit charged for most modifications, court records show.

The resulting volume even prompted the company to open an office in Guatemala City, where lower-wage employees handled customer service calls from the growing number of Spanish-speaking customers, the bar association's Noonen said.

At first, the salesman said, Green Credit's staffers were having reasonable success with modifications. But about six months into the company's operation, the volume of applications it took in had outpaced its capacity to handle them, and hundreds of files were going untouched for months at a time, he said.

Noonen likened the operation to a Ponzi scheme. "They're taking in new money and new fees to pay for the processing of the old files because they got bogged down," he said.

Filings by the state's real estate department, bar association and attorney general's office contain dozens of examples of Green Credit customers who got nothing in return for the money they paid the company.

One customer, Rhociana Smithers, told investigators she received a notice of trustee sale for her Contra Costa County home after she paid Green Credit $3,000 to arrange a loan modification.

When she contacted her lender — contrary to Green Credit's advice — she was told the bank began foreclosure proceedings after the firm ignored requests for information.

"They didn't do anything at all," said Michael Rainis, who paid Green Credit for a modification that was never completed on his Orange County home. "They just took the money and that was pretty much it."

Indeed, when officials executed their raid last December, Green Credit appeared to have given up on processing its modification files, Noonen said.

"They seemed kind of relieved that we were there to take them," Noonen said. "They had reached a dead end."

A year after that raid, Melone has pivoted some of his attention to the movie business, identifying himself as the producer of a film called "Death of a Ladies' Man" on a website seeking investors to pay for its production.

An online promotional clip shows the film's plot centered on a newlywed writer who is lured into an adulterous relationship.

In a producer's statement, Melone portrays the film's message — finding satisfaction with what one already has — as an antidote to the gloom hanging over the nation after the economic meltdown.

"I hope this movie gets that message across; especially in the times we are in today as a country," he writes. "We need to be uplifted and reminded how good we have it."


Auto parts plant explosion injures 4 in Virginia

Friday, December 31st, 2010 | Finance News

BLACKSBURG, Va. – A spokesman for an auto parts supplier says four people have been injured in an explosion at the company's plant in Virginia.

Jim Burke, spokesman for Federal-Mogul Corp. in Southfield, Mich., said the injured were employees of a local contractor that was conducting routine duct work cleaning.

Eric Earnhart, a spokesman for Roanoke Carilion Hospital, said two critically injured patients were flown to Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

George Ward, lead security officer at Lewis Gale Montgomery Hospital, said two patients were treated there for relatively minor injuries.

The Blacksburg plant is one of 107 facilities operated by Federal-Mogul worldwide. It specializes in bearings.


Hedge funds offered weak returns in 2010

Friday, December 31st, 2010 | Finance News

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters) – Hedge funds often claim to offer strong returns that are not correlated with broader markets, but in 2010 many failed on both of those counts.

That failure came in large part because hedge funds cannot make as many bets with borrowed money, analysts said.

Hedge funds on average returned just 4.52 percent this year to December 28, according to Hedge Fund Research's HFRX index.

That is short of the FTSE 100's (.FTSE) 10.5 percent jump or the Standard & Poor's 500 Index (.SPX) 12.7 percent rise.

Those lower returns failed to offer the diversification that hedge fund investors crave, experts said.

Nearly every hedge fund strategy tended to move in synchrony with the markets and with other hedge fund strategies this year, according to hedge fund data tracked by Lipper.

The hedge fund industry's lackluster performance in 2010 could spur more investors to question whether it is worth paying higher management fees for the funds, experts said.

When an investor gives money to a hedge fund manager, they are looking for returns that do not depend on the broader market, and can therefore improve the performance of the investor's overall portfolio, said Gabriel Burstein, Global Head of Investment Research for Lipper and Digital Ventures at Thomson Reuters.

"It's one of the Number One reasons that people invest in alternative investments," Burstein said.

Even so, investors were forgiving this year. Hedge funds saw net inflows from investors in 2010 for the first time since the credit crisis began, as investors have grown more confident that hedge funds can withstand the markets, according to data from Credit Suisse.

It was a tough year for hedge fund managers for many reasons, including limitations on how much funds can borrow, and difficult-to-analyze changes in the political landscape that spurred sovereign debt crises and new regulations.

Bailouts for Greece and Ireland in particular spooked many funds into reining in their bets.

"Hedge fund managers are significantly more conservative than they were at the beginning of 2008, and I don't think there are really the mega opportunities, like there were in subprime in '07 and '08," said Virginia Parker, chief investment officer at Parker Global Strategies, a firm that advises institutional investors on hedge funds.

Banks are less willing to lend money to hedge fund managers to make big bets, and funds' investors are also reluctant to magnify their potential losses by allowing managers to take on debt.

"The only way hedge fund managers are going to beat a bull market in equities is if you have leverage ... but investors haven't wanted leverage," Parker said.

It is surprising that hedge funds' performance has so closely tracked the broader markets, Lipper's Burstein said. In rising markets like 2010's, the performance of different investment strategies usually diverges.

Returns from different strategies usually converge when markets collapse, like in 2008.


Not every fund has performed poorly.

For example, funds with exposure to credit markets had a strong year.

Louis Gargour's LNG Europa Credit fund, which bets on corporate credit, rose 76.8 percent in the first 11 months of the year, after making more than 80 percent last year.

Cheyne Capital's European Event Driven fund rose 19 percent, according to investors in the fund. And at the event driven $3.6 billion fund Third Point, Dan Loeb's Third Point Offshore fund is up more than 25 percent through November 30. according to numbers compiled by HSBC.

Activist investor Bill Ackman's biggest Pershing Square International fund, which manages about $3 billion was up about 19.7 percent through the end of November, according to investors. Polygon Investment Partners made around 27 percent in its European Equity Opportunity fund.

Hedge fund managers have become fond of the phrase "Risk on, Risk off"' this year to describe the rapid shifts in market behavior as investors fluctuate between riskier commodities and credit bets and a flight to safety in assets like gold and U.S. treasuries.

Investors who proved their strategies were nimble did well, and hedge fund investors went heavily into global macro strategy funds, which are able to invest across many asset classes and adapt quickly to changes in policy.

At $14 billion New Jersey hedge fund Appaloosa Management, David Tepper's flagship Appaloosa Investment fund was up almost 21 percent after fees in the 10 months through October, after some big bets that the government would continue to support financial firms.

Big U.S. funds had slightly more subdued returns. Israel Englander's Millennium International was up about 11 percent through December 2, according to figures compiled by HSBC, and Kenneth Griffin's $11 billion fund Citadel so far this year has seen returns of about 10 percent.

Man Group's (EMG.L) $22.6 billion AHL fund rose 11.6 percent in the 12 months to December 27 as gains this month helped offset losses in November, while Bluecrest's BlueTrend fund returned 8.7 percent in the 11 months to end-November, according to figures seen by investors.

(Reporting by Emily Chasan and Laurence Fletcher in London; editing by Gunna Dickson)