- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — The widening fallout in the U.S. mortgage industry has reminded investors of a risk they had forgotten: the fear of risk itself.

As unpaid mortgages and bankrupt lenders bring the weakest segments of the mortgage industry down, investors have begun dumping debt and other investments that seem to have nothing to do with home loans.

Companies are paying higher rates on their bonds, some private-equity firms are having trouble raising money to close big purchases, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has gone from 14,000 on July 19 to an intraday low on Aug. 1 of 13,042 — all mainly because of an exodus from risk.

“I would characterize it as a loss of excessive risk appetite,” said Ian Lyngen, an interest-rate strategist at RBS Greenwich Capital. “There is a lot more apprehension about layering on riskier assets.”

The flight to safety can be traced to “subprime” mortgages.

Subprime refers to people with spotty credit histories. Fueled by Wall Street’s easy money, the subprime mortgage market exploded to $1.3 trillion over the past few years. But as home prices sagged and more borrowers missed payments on these loans, the industry fell into turmoil this year.

The meltdown of this comparatively small segment of the U.S. economy is contributing to a much bigger and broader issue: Lenders around the world are growing scared to lend.

“It is making people pull in their tolerance for risk,” said Doug Sandler, Wachovia’s chief equity strategist. But Mr. Sandler thinks that investors had been way too eager to take on risk without enough compensation.

Far from crashing, he said the market is returning to normal. Important voices agree.

“We have the strongest global economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime today,” Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. — the former head of Goldman Sachs — told reporters in Beijing last week. “We have a healthy economy. What is going on in my judgment is a reassessment of risk.”

There are plenty of examples of the effect that reassessment is having.

Insuring against a defaulted loan using something called a credit-default swap has become pricier. Treasury bonds — the safest investment in the world — have grown more expensive since mid-July because investors crave a safe haven.

Robert Bach, senior vice president of research at real estate services firm Grubb & Ellis, said some of the lenders whom he works with will not even quote a loan right now.

“There has been a change in attitude,” said Eric Thorne, investment strategist at Bryn Mawr Trust. “We were in a situation a couple of weeks ago where there wasn’t much that investors were worried about. It’s more a psychological impact of the lending environment in general.”

Two mortgage insurers said this week that a $1 billion partnership created to invest in mortgage debt may now be worthless for that very reason.

The partnership — C-Bass LLC — insists that nothing fundamental has changed and that the credit quality in its portfolio is solid. The only problem, it says, is that it cannot come up with the cash to repay the skittish lenders who have demanded their money back.

This was similar to the argument presented by Sam Molinaro, the chief financial officer of Bear Stearns. Two of the firm’s hedge funds filed for bankruptcy protection because of wrong-way bets on risky mortgages.

Mr. Molinaro insisted that the loans were safe and backed by sufficient collateral, but said the funds needed to liquidate to satisfy panicked lenders.

“It’s just a broader fear,” said Mr. Bach of Grubb & Ellis. “That credit disruption has spread to the point where people are reluctant to make loans. What started in subprime mortgage has sort of transferred into other kinds of debt right now.”

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