The Parties and Their Roles
The first issue in reviewing a structured residential mortgage transaction is to differentiate between a private-label deal and an “Agency” (or “GSE”) deal. An Agency (or GSE) deal is one involving Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, or Ginnie Mae, the three Government Sponsored Enterprises (also known as the GSEs). This paper will review the parties, documents, and laws involved in a typical private-label securitization. We also address frequently-occurring practical considerations for counsel dealing with securitized mortgage loans that are applicable across-the-board to mortgages into both private-label and Agency securitizations.
The parties, in the order of their appearance are:
Originator. The “originator” is the lender that provided the funds to the borrower at the loan closing or close of escrow. Usually the originator is the lender named as “Lender” in the mortgage Note. Many originators securitize loans; many do not. The decision not to securitize loans may be due to lack of access to Wall Street capital markets, or this may simply reflect a business decision not to run the risks associated with future performance that necessarily go with sponsoring a securitization, or the originator obtains better return through another loan disposition strategy such as whole loan sales for cash.
Warehouse Lender. The Originator probably borrowed the funds on a line of credit from a short-term revolving warehouse credit facility (commonly referred to as a “warehouse lender”); nevertheless the money used to close the loan were technically and legally the Originator’s funds. Warehouse lenders are either “wet” funders or “dry” funders. A wet funder will advance the funds to close the loan upon the receipt of an electronic request from the originator. A dry funder, on the other hand, will not advance funds until it actually receives the original loan documents duly executed by the borrower.
Responsible Party. Sometimes you may see another intermediate entity called a “Responsible Party,” often a sister company to the lender. Loans appear to be transferred to this entity, typically named XXX Asset Corporation.
Sponsor. The Sponsor is the lender that securitizes the pool of mortgage loans. This means that it was the final aggregator of the loan pool and then sold the loans directly to the Depositor, which it turn sold them to the securitization Trust. In order to obtain the desired ratings from the ratings agencies such as Moody’s, Fitch and S&P, the Sponsor normally is required to retain some exposure to the future value and performance of the loans in the form of purchase of the most deeply subordinated classes of the securities issued by the Trust, i.e. the classes last in line for distributions and first in line to absorb losses (commonly referred to as the “first loss pieces” of the deal).
Depositor. The Depositor exists for the sole purpose of enabling the transaction to have the key elements that make it a securitization in the first place: a “true sale” of the mortgage loans to a “bankruptcy-remote” and “FDIC-remote” purchaser. The Depositor purchases the loans from the Sponsor, sells the loans to the Trustee of the securitization Trust, and uses the proceeds received from the Trust to pay the Sponsor for the Depositor’s own purchase of the loans. It all happens simultaneously, or as nearly so as theoretically possible. The length of time that the Depositor owns the loans has been described as “one nanosecond.”
The Depositor has no other functions, so it needs no more than a handful of employees and officers. Nevertheless, it is essential for the “true sale” and “bankruptcy-remote”/“FDIC-remote” analysis that the Depositor maintains its own corporate existence separate from the Sponsor and the Trust and observes the formalities of this corporate separateness at all times. The “Elephant in the Room” in all structured financial transactions is the mandatory requirement to create at least two “true sales” of the notes and mortgages between the Originator and the Trustee for the Trust so as to make the assets of the Trust both “bankruptcy” and “FDIC” remote from the originator. And, these “true sales” will be documented by representations and attestations signed by the parties; by attorney opinion letters; by asset purchase and sale agreements; by proof of adequate and reasonably equivalent consideration for each purchase; by “true sale” reports from the three major “ratings agencies” (Standard & Poors, Moody’s, and Fitch) and by transfer and delivery receipts for mortgage notes endorsed in blank.
Trustee. The Trustee is the owner of the loans on behalf of the certificate holders at the end of the securitization transaction. Like any trust, the Trustee’s powers, rights, and duties are defined by the terms of the transactional documents that create the trust, and are subject to the terms of the trust laws of some particular state, as specified by the “Governing Law” provisions of the transaction document that created the trust. The vast majority of the residential mortgage backed securitized trusts are subject to the applicable trust laws of Delaware or New York. The “Pooling and Servicing Agreement” (or, in “Owner Trust” transactions as described below, the “Trust Indenture”) is the legal document that creates these common law trusts and the rights and legal authority granted to the Trustee is no greater than the rights and duties specified in this Agreement. The Trustee is paid based on the terms of each structure. For example, the Trustee may be paid out of interest collections at a specified rate based on the outstanding balance of mortgage loans in the securitized pool; the Master Servicer may pay the Trustee out of funds designated for the Master Servicer; the Trustee may receive some on the interest earned on collections invested each month before the investor remittance date; or the Securities Administrator may pay the Trustee out of their fee with no charges assessed against the Trust earnings. Fee amounts ranger for as low as .0025% to as high as .009%.
Indenture Trustee and Owner Trustee. Most private-label securitizations are structured to meet the Internal Revenue Code requirements for tax treatment as a “Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduit (“REMIC”). However some securitizations (both private-label and GSE) have a different, non-REMIC structure usually called an “Owner Trust.” In an Owner Trust structure the Trustee roles are divided between an Owner Trustee and an Indenture Trustee. As the names suggest, the Owner Trustee owns the loans; the Indenture Trustee has the responsibility of making sure that all of the funds received by the Trust are properly disbursed to the investors (bond holders) and all other parties who have a financial interest in the securitized structure. These are usually Delaware statutory trusts, in which case the Owner Trustee must be domiciled in Delaware.
Primary Servicer. The Primary Servicer services the loans on behalf of the Trust. Its rights and obligations are defined by a loan servicing contract, usually located in the Pooling and Servicing Agreement in a private-label (non-GSE) deal. The trust may have more than one servicer servicing portions of the total pool, or there may be “Secondary Servicers,” “Default Servicers,” and/or “Sub-Servicers” that service loans in particular categories (e.g., loans in default). Any or all of the Primary, Secondary, or Sub-Servicers may be a division or affiliate of the Sponsor; however under the servicing contract the Servicer is solely responsible to the Trust and the Master Servicer (see next paragraph). The Servicers are the legal entities that do all the day-to-day “heavy lifting” for the Trustee such as sending monthly bills to borrowers, collecting payments, keeping records of payments, liquidating assets for the Trustee, and remitting net payments to the Trustee.
The Servicers are normally paid based on the type of loans in the Trust. For example, a typical annual servicing fee structure may be: .25% annually for a prime mortgage; .375% for an Alt-A or Option ARM; and .5% for a subprime loan. In this example, a subprime loan with an average balance over a given year of $120,000 would generate a servicing fee of $600.00 for that year. The Servicers are normally permitted to retain all “ancillary fees” such as late charges, check by phone fees, and the interest earned from investing all funds on hand in overnight US Treasury certificates (sometimes called “interest earned on the float”).
Master Servicer. The Master Servicer is the Trustee’s representative for assuring that the Servicer(s) abide by the terms of the servicing contracts. For trusts with more than one servicer, the Master Servicer has an important administrative role in consolidating the monthly reports and remittances of funds from the individual servicers into a single data package for the Trustee. If a Servicer fails to perform or goes out of business or suffers a major downgrade in its servicer rating, then the Master Servicer must step in, find a replacement and assure that no interruption of essential servicing functions occurs. Like all servicers, the Master Servicer may be a division or affiliate of the Sponsor but is solely responsible to the Trustee. The Master Servicer receives a fee, small compared to the Primary Servicer’s fee, based on the average balance of all loans in the Trust.
Custodian. The Master Document Custodian takes and maintains physical possession of the original hard-copy Mortgage Notes, Mortgages, Deeds of Trust and certain other “key loan documents” that the parties deem essential for the enforcement of the mortgage loan in the event of default.
• This is done for safekeeping and also to accomplish the transfer and due negotiation of possession of the Notes that is essential under the Uniform Commercial Code for a valid transfer to the Trustee to occur.
• Like the Master Servicer, the Master Document Custodian is responsible by contract solely to the Trustee (e.g., the Master Document Custodial Agreement). However unlike the Master Servicer, the Master Document Custodian is an institution wholly independent from the Servicer and the Sponsor.
• There are exceptions to this rule in the world of Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac (“GSE”) securitizations. The GSE’s may allow selected large originators with great secure storage capabilities (in other words, large banks) to act as their own Master Document Custodians. But even in those cases, contracts make clear that the GSE Trustee, not the originator, is the owner of the Note and the mortgage loan.
• The Master Document Custodian must review all original documents submitted into its custody for strict compliance with the specifications set forth in the Custodial Agreement, and deliver exception reports to the Trustee and/or Master Servicer as to any required documents that are missing or fail to comply with those specifications.
• In so doing the Custodian must in effect confirm that for each loan in the Trust there is a “complete and unbroken chain of transfers and assignments of the Notes and Mortgages.”
• This does not necessarily require the Custodian to find assignments or endorsements naming the Depositor or the Trustee. The wording in the Master Document Custodial Agreement must be read closely. Defined terms such as “Last Endorsee” may technically allow the Custodian to approve files in which the last endorsement is from the Sponsor in blank, and no assignment to either the Depositor or the Trustee has been recorded in the local land records.
• In many private-label securitizations a single institution fulfills all of the functions related to document custody for the entire pool of loans. In these cases, the institution might be referred to simply as the “Custodian” and the governing document as the “Custodial Agreement.”
Typical transaction steps and documents (in private-label, non-GSE securitizations)
1. The Originator sells loans (one-by-one or in bundles) to the Securitizer (a/k/a the Sponsor) pursuant to a Mortgage Loan Purchase and Sale Agreement (MLPSA) or similarly-named document. The purpose of the MLPSA is to sell all right, title, claims, legal, equitable and any and all other interest in the loans to the Securitizer-Sponsor. For Notes endorsed in “blank” which are bearer instruments under the UCC, the MLPSA normally requires acceptance and delivery receipts for all such Notes in order to fully document the “true sale.” Frequently a form is prescribed for the acceptance and delivery receipt and attached as an exhibit to the MLPSA.
The MLPSA will contain representations, attestations and warranties as to the enforceability and marketability of each loan, and specify the purchaser’s remedies for a breach of any “rep” or “warrant.” The primary remedy is the purchaser’s right to require the seller to repurchase any loan materially and adversely affected by a breach. Among the defects and events covered by “reps” and “warrants” are “Early Payment Defaults,” commonly referred to as “EPD’s.” An EDP occurs if a loan becomes seriously (usually, 60 or more days) delinquent within a specified period of time after it has been sold to the Trust. The EDP covenants are always limited in time and normally only cover EDPs that occur within 12 to 18 months of the original sale. If an EDP occurs, then the Trust can force the originator to repurchase the EPD note and replace it with a note of similar static qualities (amount, term, type, etc.)
2. The Securitizer-Sponsor sells the loans to the Depositor. This takes place in another MLPSA very similar to the first one and the same documents are created and exchange with the same or similar terms. These are typically included as exhibits to the PSA.
3. Depositor, Trustee, Master Servicer and Servicer enter into a Pooling and Servicing Agreement (“PSA”) in which:
— the Depositor sells all right, title, legal, equitable and any other interest in the mortgage loans to the Trustee, with requirements for acceptance and delivery receipts, often including the prescribed form as an exhibit, in similar fashion to the MLPSA’s;
— the PSA creates the trust, appoints the Trustee, and defines the classes of securities (often called “Certificates”) that the trust will issue to investors and establishes the order of priority between classes of Certificates as to distributions of cash collected and losses realized with respect to the underlying loans (the highest rated Certificates are paid first and the lowest rated Certificates suffer the first losses-thus the basis for the term “structured finance”); and
— the Servicer, Master Servicer and Trustee establish the Servicer’s rights and duties, including limits and extent of a Servicer’s right to deal with default, foreclosure, and Note modifications. Some PSA’s include detailed loss mitigation or modification rules, and others limit any substantive modifications (such as changing the interest rate, reducing the principal debt, waiving default debt, extending the repayment term, etc.)
4. All parties including the Custodian enter into the Custodial Agreement in which:
• the Depositor agrees to cause the Notes and other specified key loan documents (usually including an unrecorded, recordable Assignment “in blank”)(NB that several recent courts have raised serious legal questions about the assignment of a real estate instrument in blank under such theories as the statute of frauds and whether or not an assignment in blank is in fact a “recordable” legal real estate document) to be delivered to the Custodian (with the Securitizer to do the actual physical shipment);
• the Custodian agrees to inspect the Notes and other documents and to certify in designated written documents to the Trustee that the documents meet the required specifications and are in the Custodian’s possession; and
• establishes a (supposedly exclusive) procedure and specified forms whereby the Servicer can obtain possession of any Note, Mortgage, Deed of Trust or other custodial document for foreclosure or payoff purposes.
Finding Documents on the S.E.C.’s website (the EDGAR filing system):
• If you know the name of the Depositor and the name of the Trust (e.g. “Time Bomb Mortgage Trust 2006-2”) that contains the loan in question, then the PSA and Custodial Agreement probably can be found on the SEC’s website (www.sec.gov):
• On the SEC home page look for a link to “Search for Company Filings” and then choose to search by “Company Name,” using the name of the Depositor. (Alternatively, click on the “Contains” button on the search page and then search by the series, i.e. 2006-2 in the above example.)
• Hopefully, this will enable you to find the Trust in question. If so, the PSA and the Custodial Agreement should be available as attachments to one or more of the earliest-filed forms (normally the 8-K) shown on the list of available documents. Sometimes the PSA is listed as a named document but other times you just look for the largest document in terms of megabytes filed with the 8-K form.
• The available documents also should include the Prospectus and/or Prospectus Supplement (Form 424B5) and the Free Writing Prospectus (“FWP”). The latter documents (at least the sections written in English, as opposed to the many tables of financial data) can be very helpful in providing a concise and straightforward description of the parties, documents, and transaction steps and detailed transactional graphs and charts in the particular deal. And because these are SEC documents, the information serves as highly credible evidence on these points, and the Court can take judicial notice of any document filed with the SEC.
• For securitizations created after January 1, 2006, SEC “Regulation AB” requires the parties to file a considerable amount of detailed information about the individual loans included in the Trust. This information may be filed as an Exhibit to the PSA or to a Form 8-K. This loan-level data typically includes loan numbers, interest rates, principal amount of loan, origination date and (sometimes) property addresses and thus can be very useful in proving that a particular loan is in a particular Trust.
Dealing with Notes and Assignments:
There are two basic documents involved in a residential mortgage loan: the promissory note and the mortgage (or deed of trust). For brevity’s sake these are referred to simply as the Note and the Mortgage.
A Note is: a contract to repay borrowed money. It is a negotiable instrument governed by Article 3 of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). The Note, by itself, is an unsecured debt. Notes are personal property. Notes are negotiated by endorsement or by transfer and delivery as provided for by the UCC. Notes are separate legal documents from the real estate instruments that secure the loans evidenced by the Notes by liens on real property.
A Mortgage is: a lien on, and an interest in, real estate. It is a security agreement. It creates a lien on the real estate as collateral for a debt, but it does not create the debt itself. The rights created by a Mortgage are classified as real property and these instruments are governed by local real estate law in each jurisdiction. The UCC has nothing to do with the creation, drafting, recording or assignment of these real estate instruments.
A Note can only be transferred by: an “Endorsement” if the Note is payable to a particular party; or by transfer of possession of the Note, if the Note is endorsed “in blank.” Endorsements must be written or stamped on the face of the Note or on a piece of paper physically attached to the Note (the Allonge). See UCC §3-210 through §3-205. The UCC does not recognize an Assignment as a valid means of transferring a Note such that the transferee becomes a “holder”, which is what the owners of securitized mortgage notes universally claim to be.
In most states, an Allonge cannot be used to endorse a note if there is sufficient room at the “foot of the note” for such endorsements. The “foot of the note” refers to the space immediately below the signatures of the borrowers. Also, if an Allonge is properly used, then it must describe the terms of the note and most importantly must be “permanently affixed” to the Note. Most jurisdictions hold that “staples” and “tape” do not constitute a “permanent” attachment. And, the Master Document Custodial Agreement may specify when an Allonge can be used and how it must be attached to the original Note.
Mortgage rights can only be transferred by: an Assignment recorded in the local land records. Mortgage rights are “estates in land” and therefore governed by the state’s real property laws. These vary from state to state but in general Mortgage rights can only be transferred by a recorded instrument (the Assignment) in order to be effective against third parties without notice.
In discussions of exactly what documents are required to transfer a “mortgage loan” confusion often arises between Notes versus Mortgages and the respective documents necessary to accomplish transfers of each. The issue often arises from the standpoint of proof: Has Party A proven that a transfer has occurred to it from Party B? Does Party A need to have an Assignment? The answer often depends on exactly what Party A is trying to prove.
Scenario 1: Party A is trying to prove that the Trustee “owns the loan.” Here the likely questions are, did the transaction steps actually occur as required by the PSA and as represented in the Prospectus Supplement, and are the Trustee’s ownership rights subject to challenge in a bankruptcy case?
The answers lie in the UCC and in documents such as:
• the MLPSA’s;
• conveyancing rules of the PSA (normally Section 2.01);
• transfer and delivery receipts (look for these to be described in the “Conditions to Closing” or similarly named section of MLPSA’s and the PSA);
• funds transfer records (canceled checks, wire transfers, etc);
• compliance and exception reports provided by the Custodian pursuant to the Master Document Custodial Agreement; and
• the “true sale” legal opinions.
Some of these documents may or may not be available on the SEC’s EDGAR system; some may be obtainable only through discovery in litigation. The primary inquiry is whether or not the documents, money and records that were required to have been produced and change hands actually do so as required, and at the times required, by the terms of the transaction documents.
Another question sometimes asked when examining the “validity” of a securitization (or in other words, the rights of a securitization Trustee versus a bankruptcy trustee) is, must the Note be endorsed to the Trustee at the time of the securitization? Here are some points to consider:
• Frequently the only endorsement on the Note is from the Securitizer-Sponsor “in blank” and the only Assignment that exists, pre-foreclosure, is from the Securitizer-Sponsor “in blank” (in other words, the name of the transferee is not inserted in the instrument and this space is blank).
• The concept widely accepted in the securitization world (the issuers and ratings agencies, and the law firms advising them) is that this form of documentation was sufficient for a valid and unbroken chain of transfers of the Notes and assignments of the Mortgages as long as everything was done consistently with the terms of the securitization documents. This article is not intended to validate or defend either this concept or this practice, nor is it intended to represent in any way that the terms of the securitization documents were actually followed to the letter in every real-world case. In fact, and unfortunately for the certificate holders and the securitized mortgage markets, there are many instances in many reported cases where these mandatory rules of the securitization documents have not been followed but in fact, completely ignored.
• Often shortly before foreclosure (or in some cases afterwards) a mortgage assignment is produced from the Originator to the Trustee years after the Trust has closed out for the receipt of all mortgage loans. Such assignments are inconsistent with the mandatory conveyancing rules of the Trust Documents and are also inconsistent with the special tax rules that apply to these special trust structures. Most state law requires the chain of title not to include any mortgage assignments in blank, but assignments from A to B to C to D. Under most state statutes, an assignment in blank would be deemed an “incomplete real estate instrument.” Even more frequent than A to D assignments are MERS to D assignments, which suffer from the same transfer problems noted herein plus what is commonly referred to as the “MERS problem.”
Scenario 2: Party B seeks to prove standing to foreclose or to appear in court with the rights of a secured creditor under the Bankruptcy Code. OK, granted the UCC (§3-301) does provide that a negotiable instrument can be enforced either by “(i) the holder of the instrument, or (ii) a non-holder in possession of the instrument who has the rights of a holder.”
• Servicers and foreclosure counsel have been known to contend that this is the end of the story and that the servicer can therefore do anything that the holder of the Note could do, anywhere, anytime.
• The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Guides contain many sections that appear to lend superficial support to this contention and frequently will be cited by Servicers and foreclosure counsel as though the Guides have the force of law, which of course they do not.
• There are many serious problems with this legal position, as recognized by an increasing number of reported court decisions.
Authors’ General Conclusions and Observations:
• Servicers and foreclosure firms are either wrong, or at least not being cautious, if they attempt to foreclose, or appear in court, without having a valid pre-complaint or pre-motion Assignment of the Mortgage. Yet at the same time, Servicers and note holders place themselves at risk of preference and avoidable transfer issues in bankruptcy cases if, for example, endorsements and Assignments that they rely upon to support claims to secured status occur or are recorded after or soon before bankruptcy filing.
• In addition any Servicer, Lender, or Securitization Trustee is either wrong, or at least not being cautious, if it ever: (1) claims in any communications to a consumer or to the Court in a judicial proceeding that it is the Note holder unless they are, at the relevant point in time, actually the holder and owner of the Note as determined under UCC law; or (2) undertakes to enforce rights under a Mortgage without having and recording a valid Assignment.
• The UCC deals only with enforcing the Note. Enforcing the Mortgage on the other hand is governed by the state’s real property and foreclosure laws, which generally contain crucial provisions regarding actions required to be taken by the “note holder” or “beneficiary.” State law may or may not authorize particular actions to be taken by servicers or agents of the holder of the Note.
• For the Servicer to have “the rights of the holder” under the UCC it must be acting in accordance with its contract. For example, if the Servicer claims to have possession of the Note, did it follow the procedures contained in the “Release of Documents” section of the Custodial Agreement in obtaining possession? Does the Servicer really have “constitutional” standing under either Federal or State law to enforce the Note even if it is a “holder” if it does not have any “pecuniary” or economic interest in the Note? In short, the concept of constitutional standing involves some injury in fact and it is hard to see how a mere “place-holder” or “Nominee” could ever over-come such a hurdle unless it actually owned the Note or some real interest in the same.
• The Servicer should have the burden of explaining the legal reasons supporting its standing and authority to act. Sometimes Servicers have difficulty maintaining a consistent story in this regard. Is the Servicer claiming to be the actual holder, or the holder and the owner, or merely an authorized agent of the true holder? If it is claiming some agency, what proof does it have to support such a claim? What proof is required? Sometimes this is just academic legal hair-splitting but many times it involves serious issues of fact. For example, what if the attorney for the Servicer asserts to the court that his or her client actually owns the Note, but the Fannie Mae website reports that Fannie is the owner? What if the MERS website reports that the Plaintiff is just the “Servicer?” What if the pre-complaint correspondence to the borrower names some entirely different party as the holder and indicated that the current plaintiff is only the Servicer?
• Finally, the Servicer always has an obligation to be factually accurate in borrower communications and legal proceedings, and to supervise employees and vendors and attorneys to assure that Note endorsements, Assignments of Mortgage, and affidavits are executed by persons with valid corporate authority, and not falsified nor offered for any improper purpose.
The focus of the default servicing industry must move from “how fast we can get things done” to “how honestly and accurately can we be in presenting the proper documentation to the courts and to the borrowers”. Judicial proceedings are not like NASCAR races where the fastest lawyer always wins. Judicial proceedings are all about finding the truth no matter how long it takes and regardless of the time and difficulties involved.