February 4 2008: 5:30 AM EST
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Home equity loan defaults soar

As credit woes seep into prime home equity lending, a spigot of ready cash for some homeowners is turned off.

By Roddy Boyd, writer

Bernanke goes too far
The central bank's second interest rate cut in a week raises the risk of inflation and bails out the banks.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- One of the last sources of ready cash for homeowners looking to get money from their house appears to be shutting down and the results aren't likely to be pretty for the economy.

Last week, buried deep in the ugly details of Countrywide Financial Corp.'s (CFC, Fortune 500) earnings release, was the news that its $32.4 billion portfolio of prime HELOCs - home equity lines of credit - had begun to rapidly deteriorate. The reeling Calabasas, Ca.-lender was forced to take a $704 million charge related to homeowners' inability to pay back equity they extracted from their homes.

The structure of these loans appears to spell trouble for Countrywide and other home lenders with big home equity loan books. According to an overlooked Moody's Investors Services note that came out last Wednesday, once a certain threshold of losses is achieved in a home equity loan securitization pool, the bond holder is paid off ahead of the lender.

What's worse is that it's difficult to see how large a lender's exposure is to home equity loans. Known as rapid amortization, this risk is treated as a contingent liability for Countrywide and other home equity loan lenders and is carried off balance sheet, until deterioration occurs and the lender goes on the hook for the loans. Countrywide is the nation's biggest home equity lender, with around 9% of the market.

In the short-term, this is just another blow for a investors in the financial sector. Longer-term however, it looks like a lot of ready cash is getting taken away from homeowners, at least in California. Coupled with rising unemployment, this could pose a major headache for already strapped homeowners.

To head off more defaults, Countywide sent out letters to 122,000 homeowners last week informing them that their home equity credit lines were shut down since their estimated home values had dropped below their loan amounts.

Right behind Countrywide was Chase Home Lending, which notified borrowers in Los Angeles, Imperial and Orange Counties that they could tap their credit lines for no more than 70% of the value of their house. Previously, the limit had been 90%.

The Calculated Risk blog, which specializes in real estate and mortgage finance issues, has estimated that mortgage equity withdrawals for the fourth quarter totaled $145 billion. If tightening lending standards are put rapidly into place for home equity loans, it is not inconceivable that $50 billion or more of spending power is instantly removed from the economy.

In other words, at least one-third of the recently passed $150 billion stimulus package is already canceled out. To top of page

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