Graham and Dodd on guaranteed real-estate mortgages and mortgage bonds

I recently re-read–with pleasure–chapter XVII of the 1934 Edition of Security Analysis by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd. The chapter addresses guaranteed real-estate mortgages and mortgage bonds.

I re-read the section because I think it highlights the problems of mortgage insurance companies and other insurance companies that enter the business of guaranteeing the payment of mortgages and mortgage securities (such as surety businesses like bond insurers).

You see, the real estate boom of the 1920’s led to a terrible real estate crash in the 1930’s. It basically wiped out the mortgage insurance industry and many of the surety companies that ended up guaranteeing mortgage bonds. The history is illustrative for what can happen and what may be happening today.

I quote liberally from the text below (starting on page 184).

“The idea of underlying real-estate mortgage guarantees is evidently that of insurance.”

“It is within the province of sound insurance practice to afford this protection in return for an adequate premium, provided of course, that all phases of the business are prudently handled. Such an arrangement will have the best chance of success if:
1. The mortgage loans are conservatively made in the first instance.
2. The guaranty or surety company is large, well managed, independent of the agency selling the mortgages, and has a diversification of business in fields other than real estate.
3. Economic conditions are not undergoing fluctuations of abnormal intensity.
The collapse in real-estate values after 1929 was so extreme as to contravene the third of these conditions.”

“In the first place a striking contrast may be drawn between the way in which the business of guaranteeing mortgages had been conducted prior to about 1924 and the lax methods which developed there-after, during the very time that this part of the financial field was attaining its greatest importance.”

“The amount of each mortgage was limited to not more than 60% of the value, carefully determined; large mortgages were avoided; and a fair diversification of risk…was attained.” [loan to value ratios run very high today: 80%, 90% and even 95%]

“It is true also that the general practice of guaranteeing mortgages due only three to five years after their issuance contained the possibility, later realized, of a flood of maturing obligations at a most inconvenient time.”

“The building boom which developed during the new era was marked by an enormous growth of the real-estate-mortgage business and of the practice of guaranteeing obligations of this kind.”

“Great emphasis was laid upon the long record of success in the past, and the public was duly impressed….”

“The weakness of the mortgages themselves applied equally to the guarantees which were frequently attached thereto for an extra consideration.”

“The rise of the newer and more aggressive real-estate-bond organizations had a most unfortunate effect upon the policies of the older concerns. By force of competition they were led to relax their standards of making loans.”

“…the face amount of the mortgages guaranteed rose to so high a multiple of the capital of the guarantor companies that it should have been obvious that the guaranty would afford only the flimsiest of protection in the event of a general decline in values.”

“When the real-estate market broke in 1931, the first consequence was the utter collapse of virtually every one of the newer real-estate-bond companies and their subsidiary guarantor concerns. As the depression continued, the older institutions gave way also.”

“During the 1924-1930 period several of the independent surety and fidelity companies extended their operations to include the guaranteeing of real-estate mortgages for a fee or premium.”

“…surety companies began the practice of guaranteeing real-estate-mortgage bonds only a short time prior to their debacle….”

“In most cases the resultant losses to the suretor were greater than it could stand; several companies were forced into receivership, and holders of bonds with such guarantees failed to obtain full protection.”

Perhaps the real estate boom of the early 2000’s was similar to that of the 1920’s. If that is the case, and I believe it is to some degree, then Graham and Dodd’s historical lesson served as a potent warning for investors in mortgage and bond insurance companies. Maybe that is why they have sold at such seemingly cheap prices over the years….

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

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