Ally Financial just can't escape its troubled mortgage unit, which dragged the company's fourth-quarter results into the red on Thursday.
The lender's leaders have become increasingly resentful of their mortgage albatross. Chief executive Michael Carpenter told analysts Thursday that he would have "rather not" have paid $270 million in the fourth quarter to settle foreclosure problems with regulators, ahead of an anticipated industry settlement. He added that he is not committed to continuing to support the company's Residential Capital mortgage unit, or ResCap.
"Investors should not assume there is a blank check from the parent," he said during a conference call. "My objective is to protect the value of Ally and the auto franchise, which is why the government bailed us out."
The company has threatened in recent months to put ResCap into bankruptcy. Carpenter would not comment on those plans on Thursday.
But he urged analysts to ignore ResCap and its massive mortgage woes when evaluating Ally. At one point during the call, he argued that ResCap is a completely separate legal entity from Ally, which bondholders have disputed, and compared Ally to more consistently profitable, mortgage-free financial companies.
"The rest of the company would be on par with any category Tier 1 financial company — American Express, you name it, Visa," Carpenter said. "That's what this company is, if we were not in the mortgage business."
The Detroit automotive and mortgage lender formerly known as GMAC posted a $250 million loss in the fourth quarter, compared with a $79 million profit a year earlier. Ally would have reported $246 million in fourth-quarter income had it not paid $270 million in penalties to government agencies and regulators for "foreclosure-related matters."
After more than a year of discussions, regulators have said they are close to a deal with the five largest mortgage servicers — Ally, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo — that would settle complaints over widespread "robo-signing" and other foreclosure violations.
Ally was "forced to take an accounting action," in anticipation of the upcoming settlement, "which frankly we would rather not have done because we don't have a deal," Carpenter said during the call.
It was unclear why Ally was forced to take the charge before a settlement agreement was announced. Carpenter said he could not give a break-down of the penalties because the settlement discussions are ongoing.
But that pending agreement is one of several mortgage-related problems that Carpenter blamed for holding Ally back from a brighter future. He told analysts that he has scuttled plans to take the company public until other issues are resolved.
"Our belief is that until we've made some progress on the mortgage issue, we're not going to go out into the marketplace and accept the kind of discount we'd get in order to go public," Carpenter said. "The government would like to get liquidity and we would like them to have liquidity, but they are also interested in getting value."
A public offering would allow Ally to repay the $17.2 billion in government bailout funds it received in 2008, as part of the Treasury's Troubled Asset Relief Program. Ally so far has repaid $5.4 billion in TARP funds.
Carpenter identified "three black clouds" that are currently hampering Ally's efforts to resolve legacy mortgage assets. Those issues are continued repurchase requests from investors for bad loans; a lawsuit filed in September by the Federal Housing Finance Agency for mortgage bonds sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and the proposed settlement with state attorneys general and the Department of Justice.
Without those issues, Ally's mortgage business "is in pretty decent shape," Carpenter said.