By Kevin Duignan and Roger Merritt, both managing directors at Fitch Ratings

While the default rate for U.S. ABS transactions remains low, in the last few years there has been a noticeable increase in ABS related performance problems, particularly in transactions involving thinly capitalized seller/servicers and unique asset classes. Recently, ABS trustees have come under fire from some in the market who have suggested that performance issues for certain ABS transactions reflect failures by the trustees. Fitch believes this misses the mark. While the trustee can play an important role in an ABS deal, Fitch believes that unrealistic reliance on trustees increases the risk to investors by potentially masking other more important considerations.

Specifically, Fitch believes it is important to consider the critical role played by the seller/servicer in ABS transactions, which is heavily dependent on the stability of their business model and financial viability. In addition, cash flow stresses should include appropriate servicing fee scenarios, and post-closing transaction performance and servicer financial health should be followed closely. Focusing of these key areas, in Fitch's view, is a more effective way for ABS investors to mitigate risk than any dramatic change in the trustee's role might provide.

Fitch recognizes that a trustee can play a valuable role in ABS transactions. It is also likely that in some specific situations, the trustee's performance was substandard and needs to be addressed. At the same time, these issues should not come as a surprise. The trustee's role in ABS transactions has clearly been marginalized over time due to a combination of fear of liability and low fees. There are some steps that can be considered that could improve trustee performance, including fee increases and modifications to the transaction structures in which trustees explicitly assume key responsibilities for the benefit of investors. Fitch will continue to work with trustees and investors to improve trustee performance and accountability. That said, even these changes would do little to address the more fundamental problem of entities and/or assets that may be poor candidates for securitization.

Discounting transactions in which there are substantial allegations of fraud (such as NCFE), Fitch believes one of the principal reasons for the recent credit problems is the heightened liquidity risk in today's environment. In addition, over the past several years a variety of less homogenous (or off- the- run) assets have been securitized for which the number of available and willing substitute servicers can be limited.

In order to determine the likelihood and feasibility of a servicing transfer, appropriate analysis of the servicer's business platform, financial health and operational quality is critical. This coordinated review may make it possible to identify weaknesses that can be mitigated through additional credit enhancement, legal and structural revisions and improvements to back-up servicing arrangements. Ultimately, this type of review may result in a rating cap' or the identification of transactions that are ratable only at ratings below investment grade because of the high potential for near-term performance interruptions.

As part of the initial transaction review, it has become increasingly important to consider servicing fees and the potential impact of servicing disruptions in cash flow stresses. The amount of the servicing fee, the way in which it is structured, and its placement in the waterfall should be reviewed closely. It is more likely that a financially weak servicer will default or trip a performance trigger at some point in the life of a transaction leading to a servicing transfer. It is therefore important to test transaction cash flows with the servicing fee at a level appropriate for the collateral pool, assuming a distressed scenario and with the servicing fee in a senior position in the waterfall.

Active performance analytics can be another important mitigator of risk. In some cases, performance related downgrades may be amplified by simultaneous deterioration in a servicer's financial wherewithal. A servicer in poor financial condition may be unable to adequately support the servicing operations, leading to higher delinquencies and losses. Recognition of this fact may provide early warning signals that allow investors to intervene proactively to protect their interests.

Fitch's increased focus on seller/servicer related risks on new transactions has led to higher credit enhancement levels, additional structural protections and more explicit back-up servicer arrangements in a number of transactions. More importantly, these same issues have resulted in rating caps on certain deals and, in several cases, Fitch's election not to rate the transaction at all. On a post-closing basis, the evidence of these risks has amplified certain performance related rating actions and will continue to influence Fitch's rating actions to a higher degree going forward.

Copyright 2003 Thomson Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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