Here’s an interesting statistic presented to me by one investor eyeing the mortgage market: over the past 18 months, REITs have raised $26 billion in new equity. Almost all of it has been targeted toward MBS investments. Very little has been plowed into mortgage servicing rights.
This little factoid raises an interesting question: Where are all the nontraditional MSR buyers that were supposed to flood the market, causing a historic shift in the world of mortgage banking?
The answer is simple: Despite the chatter about REITs buying MSRs, it hasn’t really happened. Yes, New Castle Investment Corp., a REIT, is supposed to get a chunk of the Residential Capital Corp./Nationstar deal but that sale is far from completion and may even change. (New Castle is part of a smaller transaction involving other MSRs, via the funding of excess servicing rights.)
As I noted in last week’s column, MSR values may’ve bottomed out, but that doesn’t mean there’s a long line of investors stretching around the block, ready to hand over their cash. I should also clarify that statement. There are investors salivating at the opportunity to buy something on the cheap but concerns still persist, including the worry that housing may have more to fall (despite recent signs that suggest otherwise).
One major stumbling block to REITs getting more involved in owning MSRs is tied to the asset itself. REIT stands for “real estate investment trust” and MSRs are not an exact fit when it comes to legal definitions. As one fund manager explained to me recently: “You need a letter from the IRS stating that MSRs are REIT-qualified assets.”
He added, “And that can take six months.”
Keep in mind that Dallas-based Nationstar is not a REIT. And it’s not exactly a nontraditional buyer either. Nationstar was previously called Centex Home Equity Co., and had ties to the homebuilder of the same name. It has been in business since 1997.
One large buyer of MSRs has been Walters Investment Management Co., Tampa, Fla., but that firm recently tossed its REIT charter overboard. And then there’s IBM-owned Seterus, which is becoming a large subservicer for Fannie Mae, but it is neither a REIT or an actual owner of MSRs. “They don’t want to own anything,” one source close to the company noted.
But with all that said, let’s be clear: REITs and private equity firms are looking at the sector, as is bond giant PIMCO. Two things are driving that interest: high unlevered yields and the fact that MSRs can serve as a hedge in a rising rate environment.
The ultimate play boils down to buying housing receivables on the cheap, hiring a subservicer to process the loans, and when rates rise sell MSRs to the highest bidder in the land, of which there will be plenty.
It all looks good on paper, but so far paper hasn’t translated into reality. Although Bank of America is trying its best to be a net seller of MSRs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup (other recent sellers) may be changing their tune on whittling down their exposure to MSRs.
In other words, are REITs solely opportunistic buyers looking to make a quick hit and be on their way? Answer: You can only be an opportunistic buyer if you actually buy something.