What Is a Mortgage-Backed Security?

Securitization is a process that takes individual mortgage loans, bundles them, and turns them into marketable mortgage-backed securities (or “MBS”) that can be bought and sold.

If you get far enough behind in your mortgage payments, you’ll probably find yourself facing a foreclosure. You’ll receive a complaint, the first step in a judicial foreclosure, or another document, like a notice of default in a nonjudicial foreclosure, letting you know that the process has started.

In that initial document, you might notice that the foreclosing party is something like “U.S. Bank National Association, as trustee, on behalf of the holders of the Bear Stearns Asset-Backed Securities I Trust 2005-AC6.” If you see this kind of language in your foreclosure paperwork, it means that your home loan is part of a residential mortgage-backed security. But what is a mortgage-backed security? In the most basic terms, a mortgage-backed security is a type of investment that’s secured by home loans.

Read on to learn more about mortgage-backed securities, how mortgage loans are securitized, and the major players in a securitization transaction.

How Mortgage Transactions Work

When you take out a loan to buy a home, the lender provides you with money to make the purchase in exchange for your promise to repay the loan plus interest. This promise, along with the terms for repayment, is contained in the promissory note.

As part of the transaction, you'll also pledge the home as collateral for the loan. The mortgage (or deed of trust) is the document that contains this pledge.

The Mortgage Securitization Process

In a process called securitization, multiple loans—including both the promissory note and the mortgage or deed of trust—with similar characteristics are pooled, often held in a trust, and then sold in the secondary market. The purchaser (or “investor”) gets the right to receive a portion of the future income stream that comes from the borrowers’ payments on the mortgage loans.

Who’s Who in the Securitization Process

The key parties in the securitization process are:

  • Originators. The originators are the parties that initially create the assets that will be securitized. In the mortgage industry, the original lender—again, typically a bank or mortgage company—is considered an originator.
  • Investors. Investors purchase shares or certificates in a mortgage loan pool and are entitled to receive payments from the trust that holds the pool.
  • Trustee. The trustee oversees the trust and protects the investors’ interests.
  • Loan servicer. The servicer manages the loans that make up the pool.

A pooling and servicing agreement is the main contract that governs the relationship between these parties and controls what can and can't be done with a securitized trust.

Why Mortgage Investors Generally Like Mortgage-Backed Securities

With securitization, mortgage investors can better understand the price and risk of their investment because approved credit rating agencies classify the various tranches according to their relative risks. (Mortgage-backed securities are normally set up in multiple “tranches” based on the riskiness of the investment. A tranche is a portion of a pooled collection of securities that’s categorized by risk or other characteristics so that it’s marketable to different investors. High-rated tranches are made up of less-risky loans. Low-rated tranches, which are generally made up of subprime loans, carry higher risk.) Standardized underwriting requirements for different kinds of loans help agencies assign ratings.

Individual mortgages, on the other hand, are often difficult for investors to understand and price. And, when investing in mortgage-backed securities, an investor is insulated from the risk of an individual mortgage default.

What Kinds of Loans Can Be Securitized?

Any type of mortgage loan can be securitized. During the housing boom of the early 2000s, subprime loans were particularly popular for securitization because they generated large returns for investors due to their high-risk nature. The subsequent foreclosure crisis was due in significant part to residential mortgage-backed securities that were filled with subprime loans, which eventually had massive numbers of defaults. Droves of loan defaults in low-rated tranches, as well an in more highly-rated tranches, led to large losses for investors.

Talk to an Attorney

The securitization process is complicated. If you’re facing a foreclosure and your loan has been securitized, consider talking to an attorney to help you understand the intricacies and the issues surrounding securitization as it pertains to your individual situation.

A foreclosure attorney can also explain different options that might be available to prevent a foreclosure and can tell you if you have any defenses to the foreclosure, like the foreclosing party doesn't have standing.

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