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Interview with Marty Lavin, JD

April 3rd, 2013 1 comment

Marty, before we get into the meaty topics that will follow, let's establish your credentials for readers who may not know you and your background.

  • 1) MHProNews: Please tell us about your years involved in manufactured housing, including legal, as a community owner, expert on financing and any other. Include a sense of your MHC, financing and other business interests.

marty-lavin-50-posted-mhpronews-com-industry-voices-blog Marty Lavin:

I’m now 70 years old and I look back to 1972, when as a summer intern I entered the mobile home business. I was a junior in law school and was working at Ray’s Homes, who operated owned and franchised lots up and down the east coast, from New Brunswick to Florida.

For you youngsters, 1972 and then 1973 following it were the absolute pinnacle of the mobile home industry, reaching almost 580,000 shipments both years. At today’s shipments level, that is about eleven years of shipments, in each year, back to back. Those were giddy times, and predictions of 1,000,000 annual mobile home production seemed heady, but few seriously doubted it could happen, there seemed no barriers.

There were factories building homes all the way from some constructing them in their garage to the industry giants, Champion and Fleetwood or their compatriots. Time dims my full memory of 1972 and ’73, but not the excitement of those incredible times.

What it does not dim is that our sales organization was a national scope powerhouse, selling over 5,000 new homes in 1973. Think of that, almost 1% of all national sales, in one small outfit run by 3 people! I was proud of that then and still am.

What I remember most about 1972 is a time I was asked to go to a local land lease community owned by our organization. The community had about 214 homes in it, as I remember, a very large community in our small State of Vermont.

I was to field resident complaints. As I recall, a modest rent increase had just gone in and there was an uprising. I was to go up and quell the unrest.

I arrived at 5:30 PM, alone, at the community ballpark, and I met with 200+ very angry folks, and since they had been playing softball there were lots of baseball bats in the hands of the angry. Lesson: never attend a resident meeting alone with 200 angry people with baseball bats in hand. Actually a number of lessons came from that incident, which later served me well in both the MH Community and the apartment business. After all, the folks who inhabit apartments and MH Communities are not so different.

I came back after law school graduation and spent the next five years managing the legal affairs of sales lots, calling on banks for our service company, doing other legal work, and giving zoning presentations for MH Communities and strip shopping centers. Let’s say that the strip center zoning was easy compared with zoning MH Communities in most eastern states, as it was a serious challenge, even in the 1970’s. Always the endeavor was contentious, costly and endless, not a good business model.

By 1977 I became a General Motors dealer, selling Chevys for 4 years, then Oldsmobile and Cadillac for another 5 years. Sad to say, as much as I liked selling cars, I could not succeed financially although my sales were excellent, but profits, not sales volume sets the business paradigm, in cars or MH, and I fell short there. At the time the U.S. auto business was under serious pressure from the foreigns, and GM was already a doomed giant.

Back I went to real estate and the MH business.

From 1985 until 1995 I ran fast and hard buying communities in several states. As I remember at one point I was in George Allen’s top 75 list or thereabouts of community owners. These were communities I owned mostly on my own, few partners, just bank and seller debt. And of course, whether it is equity money from public subscription or money partners, or purchase money debt, they can all be harsh masters, and the vicious real estate depression of the 1989-1993 and the RTC (Resolution Trust Corporation) had us all in workouts. Most of my friends and partners declared bankruptcy. I thought that foolish, as it seemed unnecessary. Lots of talking and court appearances, but I got through it in spite of $55 million in debt, in 1989 dollars.

Rather than bankruptcy, my own course was entirely different. I chose to be prickly, but reasonable. Prickly, in that I could not be easily rolled by the creditor, and reasonable in that sometimes a property is not working, and it needs to go to someone with greater resources.

By 1988 I had formed an MH chattel loan service company, representing a large number of northeast area banks in originating loans, for home only, going primarily into communities. The general downturn of 1989-1993, with a steep decline in MH sales and lots of repossessions, stopped the service company’s climb to the big loan numbers. But they ultimately did come. In 1998, our company, Mortgage Services, Inc. (MSI) originated over 6,500 loans, totaling $188 million in originations. Those are big numbers in chattel loans by a broker. But as proud as we are of our volume, our record of clean paper without games, is a greater source of pride.

We originated loans for Vanderbilt, Chemical/Chase Bank, The Associates, CIT Group and many others. As one lender said to me a couple years after they left the industry and was running off the portfolio, “If every loan we bought were like yours, Marty, we’d still be in the business.” Satisfying words, indeed, in an industry enshrined in the Lending World Hall of Shame for Fraud.

We hung on with ever-smaller loan volume throughout most of the 2000’s, finally calling it quits after 2008, when we could no longer make money and my eyes glazed over trying to reinvent myself.

In 1999 or thereabouts, I was elected Vice Chair of the Financial Services Division of MHI, a two year assignment, which then leads to a two year assigned as the chairman of the Division. But, the industry was cratering so quickly, that the then chairman’s company exited MH lending, dropped out of MHI, and my term of almost 4 years as Financial Services Division Chairman began quickly.

In spite of an industry decline of frightening proportions, for many the reality had not yet sunk in. Mid-2000s shipments ranging from 125,000 to 150,000 homes, only with the grace of God who sent hurricanes and the industry built homes to house the dispossessed. But for anyone who could put it together, it was obvious: things in the industry were unraveling very quickly with scant hope of recovery.

For almost ten years I wrote a monthly newsletter, “Marty’s News and Notes,” commenting on the scene in Trailerville. What was obvious to me seemed less obvious to many. The industry was putting itself in an ever-shrinking situation and was not lifting a finger to try to save itself. The MH Image Campaign was endlessly pondered, but in the end, powerful industry forces that would profit by a weak industry joined hands with industry nabobs who to this day contend that our present situation is just an industry pullback, to kill the image campaign. Today, the industry has no ability to do any general industry promoting being too small to raise the money.

The highlight emotionally of this fading late 2000’s era was my dis-invitation from a community owner’s conference I was accepted to attend. My ideas of the industry decline, its causes, potential cures, and likely outcome were too radical. “Lenders could make money, they just got scared,” they said. They’d be back. I reasoned with even “good” MH chattel portfolios into land lease communities suffering over 30% lifetime defaults, lenders were unlikely to return, and so they haven’t. My one satisfaction since is that those who dis-invited me to the conference have of late finally grasped what I was saying over 5 years ago. Welcome to the party, even if belatedly so.

I very much enjoyed my assignment with Fannie Mae from 2003-2009 as their factory built housing consultant. I tried, as did Fannie, to bring some useful and survivable lending programs to the industry, but essentially they were rebuffed. To the end, the industry wanted to shuck and jive lenders to take losses in their behalf. I found the people at Fannie to be very intelligent and knowledgeable. They knew how to research a subject.

In many regards industry performance and industry attitude have never meshed. One would think an industry which had shrunk by 80% would go into bodies they were soliciting for help with hat-in-hand. Instead, bolstered by the industry shibboleth of “America’s Most Affordable Housing Form,” demands were more common than requests. That operating form continues to this day! I call it Pit Bull lobbying.

My proudest moment was in October, 2004, when my peers at the MHI Financial Services Division awarded me the Totaro Award of outstandinglifetime achievement to the division and industry. An award of this type makes one feel that all those meetings, flights, conferences and commuters, time consuming and personally expensive as they are, did not go unnoticed.

              

2) MHProNews: Tell us what you think the outlook is for us on the legislative or lobbying fronts on initiatives to modify regulations with the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) in Washington DC and why.

Marty Lavin:

One must look at the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Since the enactment of the Patriot Act in this nation, government found that they could pass very onerous and controlling laws, with relatively muted public outcry. In fact, the general public mood was that we wanted to be regulated. “Me, I’m ok and can be trusted, but that guy over there, let’s put him in regulatory shackles,” seemed to be the prevailing attitude.

An onslaught of rules and regulation ensued (Osama, you won, pal!). Many of them came as a response to the 2008 financial crisis, leading to an endless array of rules, regulations and laws. Nothing was left to chance. Endless government employees were hired to man all fronts. People not wanting to sit around in their government office with nothing to do, wrote their hearts out with rules and regulations. This necessitated a whole new group of people to enforce the laws, to make sure knuckles were broken for transgressors. Dodd-Frank and the Alphabet Laws ensued, and who knows what else (ObamaCare).

And what industries were targeted?

Well, all those mortgage lenders who had caused or appeared to cause the 2008 fracas. One would think the manner in which our industry had responded to being entangled by the regulation was that was they had “clean hands.” The industry acted as though they had not caused any of the lending problems which brought the regulations. Forget that from 1999 until 2005 or thereabouts, millions of MH homeowners lost their homes to the depredations of our sellers and industry lenders and the highly flawed portfolios they originated. “But we gave them a chance for home ownership,” was the industry refrain. Some chance, when portfolios were originated with well over 50% defaults.

This led to many problems for the lenders, but the primary losers for those bad portfolios were the homeowners, and the investors who bought the portfolios, just as occurred in the 2008 mortgage disaster. In the MH 1999-2005 loan meltdown the plight of homeowners with lost homes, lost jobs, divorces, financial problems, moves for other housing and the emotional distress it caused seemed unreported and without concern by anyone. But did it escape the gaze of the regulators?

When these things occurred in the real estate lending meltdown of 2008, the scope was so great and consequences so extreme, that homeowner plight did not go unnoticed. To the contrary, many undeserving homeowners were given breaks they did not deserve. Little of that occurred in the MH debacle.

The CFPB arose from that wellspring; Chattel loan shenanigans led to homeowner/borrower consequences essentially identical to the mortgage mess, so why treat them differently? To say nothing of the industry reputation for loan fraud, and dealing with many financially fragile people who were not viewed as able to protect themselves.

Don’t misunderstand my drift; I’m simply reporting what I see as the motivation for the formation of the CFPB, and by extension, the prospects for any serious changes in their rules and regulations.

Were I sitting across the table from industry lobbyists, in the back of my mind is the knowledge that exempting the MH industry from these rules is loosening the grip on an industry who hasn’t acted as though their past lending was fair to the consumer.

Yes, as the industry claims, a few more homes might be sold if rules were relaxed, but the CFPB rules and regs do not by themselves stop a 580 FICO buyer from getting financed. That’s a self-sustaining process by industry lenders for the moment. But it might protect the 660 on up FICO MH buyer from some of the known operating defects from which the industry has suffered. That’s the thinking the industry faces in seeking changes.

So, what do I think the industry lobbying efforts will gain as to the CFPB? I seriously doubt that any meaningful loosening of regulations will occur as making the case for it is not easy. At best, a few more homes could be sold and financed to responsible buyers, but regulators do not see loosening regulations which simply allow people at the bottom to “buy” more MH, and suffer a high loss of homes. And that is what the industry seeks, at its heart. My advice, onerous as the regulations are, learn to live with them and take advantage of a new competitive factor introduced by CFPB. Master the requirements and get a leg up on those who will not, of whom there appears to be many.

3) MHProNews: What is your impression of the working relationship between various industry associations, HUD and the DOE?

Down through the years I have known both sides of the continuing lobbying drama. The industry wants this and that, most of which conflicts with the regulators desire to control the industry and protect the consumer. We now have a history of going at this since the late 1970’s, without any magical results for the industry. It has recently become a highly regulated industry which heretofore, though the industry viewed itself as highly regulated, it was not. That changed. Welcome to the new America where regulation of all stripes holds sway.

Of the major industry associations, MHI (Manufactured Housing Institute) has been the compromising industry element. While individual members have been combative, the association has tried to be firm, but compromise has not been unknown.

The other group, MHARR (Manufactured Housing Association for Regulatory Reform), has catered to the industry segments which feel we can go toe-to-toe with industry regulators and have our way with them.

I think if we took a long and serious look at the actual achievements of both associations, the record reveals little success by the pit bull faction, and some, though limited success from the compromisers. But what would we expect from an industry whose main claim is that it is America’s most affordable housing, when government now finds non-profits or developer-required low-income housing as the better vehicle to deliver affordable housing, not the MH industry. The industry has become suspect, and that is at the heart of the regulations, just as it was with the mortgage industry which brought on their highly increased regulatory burden.

I’ve written at some length in this publication in the past on this very matter of the associations, and a view of that might shed even more light on the subject as to my thoughts on our associations and their operating style and effectiveness.

I do not want to leave this matter of lobbying without speaking to the state associations.

All during my 40+ years in Trailerville, I’ve dealt with them. They have many very talented people involved and members can really get involved without the major time and money cost of national association meeting attendance. Some belong to both, but at my speeches at various state associations I met many I never saw in Washington, who obviously were very involved in state matters. Their record of storming the state capitols to seek redress shows how effective close relationships can be. We see an effectiveness locally we simply do not see on the national stage.

Locally we may represent a strong voice listened to. Nationally, even when we had a fairly strong PAC $$$$, we were a minor player in most regards and were treated as such. Today with our PAC having the same money as the allowance for an 18 year-old, we don’t get too much respect or time.

In most states, with strong associations, getting into the halls of power and talking with a regulator or politician who is a personal friend of yours yields excellent results. Would it be this action was transferable to DC. But in DC relationships seem to hinge on $$$$$.

4) MHProNews: What do you think would help the industry's working relationship with regulators?

Marty Lavin:

The industry needs friends. It has few if any in government, and none I know of in the non-profit world, which takes an ever greater share of attention within government. As we’ve seen repeatedly, at all levels of government, a few loud critics, especially from non-profits, have enormous sway over board and regulators. Meanwhile, everything we say is questioned and mostly disbelieved.

Long have I encouraged MHI to join folks like AARP, who is a serious critic of the industry, in trying to resolve issues between us.

Is the water too poisoned to join with various non-profits? Perhaps, but if we can work with them on specific issues, powerful forces could be unleashed on our behalf, which would greatly enhance our clout with government. Against us they seem to be prevailing. But we must get past the ingrained industry belief that we do no wrong and do not need to change or compromise.

By ourselves, in an essentially buggy whip industry (fading), I do not see the regulators doing anything we request, save at the margin. And any slide back from regulations will quickly be rescinded as soon as industry infractions occur once more. History tells us that will happen quickly. Just look at the number of industry people trying to slide around the numerous lending regulations now hung around our necks.

5) MHProNews: What do you think would be useful in having a positive impact on our lobbying efforts for modifications in Dodd-Frank with Capitol Hill?

Marty Lavin:
I fail to come up with any positive, easy solutions to our problems, heaven knows I tried. The industry reputation of “bad-actor,” who treats consumers unfairly, who closes communities to sell 150 families out so a Wal-Mart can be built, who champion chattel lending where very financial fragile people have high default rates in communities, who raise rents endlessly, have led to not only Dodd-Frank, but to highly restrictive zoning laws, rent control laws, and a myriad of lending and non-lending regulations. These have help squeeze the life from the industry.

But let’s confront the real culprit for the fall from 580,000 homes in 1973 to the 50,000 range today, even as population has increased by 50% since 1973.

Listen intently here, Junior, it ain’t the regulations which plague us.

It is this simple fact, like it or not: Chattel lending to the average customer drawn to our product is not sustainable because of high default rates and the attendant high loss upon resale of defaulted collateral.

I needn’t remind you this is a complex, intractable problem at least for now, and solutions are extremely elusive. If lenders lend only to those customers likely to default at less than 20% lifetime rates, then this is a small industry, as we now see. If lenders follow the lending regimen of 1960-2003, then defaults will lead to huge lender losses, even as sales soar, for a while anyway.

Since the ABS MH meltdown of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, lenders are aware of this fact. Sad to say, after innumerable industry meetings, I note only our lenders seem to appreciate this fact. The rest of the industry seems unconvinced, not wanting to be confused by the facts.

Thus the present extreme caution in lending, as even six months of lending error will likely bring an enterprise down, results from the reported facts of the ABS era. MH Lenders have decided that it will not be them who subsidize the industry through loan losses.

The GSE’s were probed to take over that role and even though they did so with real estate mortgages with disastrous ramifications, they refused to do so with MH.

HUD/FHA through its lending programs has always been probed to have them assume that role. Once the 50 year lender subsidy of the industry was withdrawn, reality set in as to the real size of the industry. Not the 1975 to 1999 trend line of 250,000 homes annually, but a mere 50,000 home shipments per year, was the real size.

And even if the hurricanes run wild again, will government turn to us again for homes?

That leaves only government-subsidized loan losses in order for the industry to be able to return to those golden 250,000 annual home shipments. So far every government agency has refused to do so, especially after the losses suffered in the Title I, Chattel Loan program, which the GAO report demonstrated was a serious loser. No one wants to be our bitch.

I dare say that the loan losses and its connection to industry size were well recognized by some by the late 1990’s, when I heard a senior GSE official say that only with government subsidies could the industry succeed once lenders retreated. That hasn’t happened. I was gape-jawed at the time, but how right they were!

So going to Capitol Hill on Dodd-Frank almost seems like deck chair moving. Let’s suppose all Dodd-Frank and other new lending license requirements were repealed, does selling self-financed used homes to 580 FICO borrowers save the industry?

I think not and clearly stated as such years ago when an industry scribe was waxing eloquent about the potential for self-finance to save the industry. It is not going to happen for a variety of reasons, and I told him so as well. It may help some individual organizations, but the entire industry? Yeah, right.

6) MHProNews: What closing thoughts would you like to leave with industry readers today?

Marty Lavin:

Tony, in those dozens of “Marty’s News and Notes” I wrote in the 2000’s I proposed many changes in the industry operating model I thought would help. Of course, most all of them were unenforceable, were likely to be violated by many, and some were deemed to make industry action more difficult, as though if not enacted the industry would get better and easier.

The Image Campaign was an excellent example. After Roper Associates polled the public on industry public perception, their report to the industry said that in their 30+ years of polling, no industry had been so poorly perceived by the public and their customers. This was strong incentive indeed for an industry seeking to refurbish itself. We did nothing. So they don’t like us? Who gives a rat’s azz?

Regulators deal in the real world. They read the newspaper account of another tenant revolt in a community after a rent increase. The photos of another community closing with pathetic people having to move a worthless 40 year old home to another elsewhere and not having the resources to do so can’t help but move the public.

Not our problem you say? Perhaps, but our regulators and critics wield their dictatorial power against us, even as the industry seems oblivious to it. And like the drip of the Chinese water torture, little by little our operating style has gone out of style. Yeah, but dick-head, we are moving to create green homes! That will help.

In spite of everything I’ve said in here, let’s zero in on the most important fact I can remind you of today.

Like the stock market which is a market of individual stocks, this is not an industry, but an accumulation of individual opportunities, all revolving around a factory built home.

There are plenty of players surviving, even flourishing in their own endeavors.

It would be nice to have a strongly growing industry to help business, but the industry has shrunk enough, shedding many enterprises, as it seeks its new level. Some elements, like the communities, will likely continue shrinking as the cornfields which became mobile home parks courtesy of crazy lending, revert to cornfields.

You know that from those endless real estate broker-sent emails asking for offers on troubled properties, with 50% occupancy, almost all of which are owner financed homes. Mercy, Jesus…

Don’t plan your business around Dodd-Frank, or SAFE or CFPB being modified or overturned. The chances of that are slim. Pay attention to your own unique niche. Follow the rules, stay out of trouble, and meld business needs with empathy for your buyer or community resident. Become the “good guy” in a sea of others.

Hard as it is, do the things required by law if necessary to succeed. If the laws are overturned or modified, you can quickly revert, but you are wasting time trying to battle what is in place now.

Know that GreenTree Financial is not returning and the industry lenders, few as they are, will not become GreenTree. Don’t worry about that rumored 580 FICO industry chattel lender coming to the sales lot close to you. It isn’t happening. And if it does, keep those bottom right drawer loans denied by everyone else flowing to it quickly, as the life expectancy is about three years.

Nothing is likely to change. Partner with your local hometown bank(s), protect them, and reap the rewards that can flow from that association. Make your plans based on increasing regulations, not less. Your ability to operate easily in that regulatory environment will be the key in the future.

Finally, the hot button of this moment; titling what has historically been personal property as real estate, that is the home-only, even in land lease communities.

I first bumped into this around 2004 at a meeting of land lease residents and non-profit employees who ran the communities. This was described as the new panacea, after all, we know how secure real estate secured mortgages can be, especially with sub-prime lenders and borrowers. This change in titling protocols would fix everything for the homeowner.

Then about 5-6 years ago a law professor from the University of Minnesota contacted me to discuss the concept. She was writing a law review article on the matter, as I remember, and had liberally quoted a lot of my written work. Very complimentary. I will tell you the same thing about titling personal property homes as real estate by fiat as I told her. You can do it by law if you chose to but to what end?

Presumably, doing this well-intended move is a desire to remediate the whole purchase, default, repo resale process. That process entails two issues: first the incidence of loan defaults, or what percentage will default, and severity, or how much money will be lost on the repossession and resale of the home. With broadly expansive chattel lending, these two have plagued the industry since the very first, and by extension, plagued the homeowner.

Of course, if by fiat one can entirely change the character of an item, I am all for it. I would start by declaring Martin V. Lavin as a young, handsome, vital man instead of an old, ugly, tired man. Well, of course logic tells us that in both the home and the man, the declaration by fiat of something it isn’t is doomed to failure.

Don’t let that hold you back. Perception is reality. Remember, put a tooth under the pillow and the good fairy comes.

The refrain always is; it works in New Hampshire, why not elsewhere?

This is a refrain that can only come out of a mouth of someone who hasn’t been in a three year old home which has gone into default, the home has been owned by uncaring people, the rugs stained, the appliances and furniture taken with the former owners, and during the repo period, neighborhood kids stoned all the windows and took a dump on the floor in the bathroom. They missed the hopper.

I’ve been in those homes, often located in a community with very substantial home vacancy and the owner just loves those substantial, frequent rent increases. So why does it all work in New Hampshire and a few other states as well even without real estate titling? The key to low frequency and severity hinge, on several factors:

  • High home values in conventional housing in the area
  • A relatively tight area housing market
  • A home placed in a community with low vacancy
  • Landlords/community owners who exercise rent increase restraint or rent control
  • Low numbers, if any, of community-owned homes

New Hampshire has most of these factors. Take away the vaunted “real estate” designation and do you think the MH market in New Hampshire would noticeably change. I think not.

Alternately, go to rural Alabama or Mississippi and go into some of the typical communities there, which do not share the factors above enumerated and do you think that real estate titling will change anything? “Hot damn, my trailer just became a mansion by the new law passed,” said Johnny Hayweed. All I can say, is if passing a law which says that chattel is real estate is all that is needed to correct frequency and severity, bring it on! Do you really think that is the answer?

From the recollection I have of dealing in New Hampshire financing years ago, the process was more onerous than a simple chattel loan for whatever that means. On the positive side real estate financing brings with it a number of borrower protections that pure chattel transaction have not always enjoyed. I’m not sure that with all the Alphabet Laws plus Dodd-Frank that protections on pure chattel transactions are now lacking.

But again, it doesn’t really matter whether this move has any particular merit or not, get your throat ready for the shove-down, its coming. And who is pushing it? Why the aforementioned non-profits, especially the Ford Foundation and its many allies. You know, the people the industry has failed to engage and who are now calling the tunes. Wake me when it’s over.

For the record, I still own a manufactured home community, remain comfortably retired, but keenly interested in the manufactured housing industry. And I still get an occasional consulting and expert witness assignment. ##

(Photo Credits: Supplied by Marty Lavin)

(Editor's Note: As with all of our Industry Voices guest articles and other featured articles, the opinions expressed are those of the the writer, or in this case, of Marty Lavin, JD, who thoughtfully and candidly replied to each of our questions. A careful look at Marty Lavin's thoughts will reveal that this is not pure 'doom and gloom,' as he points out exceptions to the rules that he has witnessed. We at MHProNews.com welcome posted comments or reply columns on this article and encourage similar or differing points of view. You may submit a guest column with the usual editorial guidelines to us by email. Use the words Letter to the Editor or Industry Voices Guest Column in the subject line to: iReportMHNewsTips@MHMSM.com or latonyk@gmail.com Be sure to ask for a message confirming your submission, thank you.)

CONSPIRACY or INACTION: Which is to blame?

July 15th, 2011 No comments

by Martin V. (Marty) Lavin

Our Friend

Ah, finally, I was intent on reviewing the innumerable documents, which built up on the computer I had used for several years.  As I scanned the dozens, no hundreds of files in my documents, I came upon some, which stirred memories.  Probably none more than R. C. “Dick” Moore’s “Perspective #61” of July 18, 2008.  Mr. Moore, as most know, is a longtime MH retailer and community owner.  As the spirit moves him, he puts out an occasional newsletter, Perspective.

And what was this memorable missive all about?  Well it was a fairy tale about a mysterious “friend up east” who had MH powers similar to Superman, able to unite the GSE’s, (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), Clayton Homes and maybe even Citibank, and Warren Buffett himself, in an effort to stifle all competition for chattel retail lending to the industry.  Wow!  Strong stuff indeed.

The gist of the tale is that our “friend” was paid by the GSE’s to advise them “not to buy MH paper.”  This would also lead to Citibank “pulling the rug” on Origen Financial and Palm Harbor.  Then, as all competition is wiped away, Buffett borrows $2 billion in the market which he deposits in the account of the Clayton Homes’ lenders, Vanderbilt Mortgage and 21st Mortgage.  While the story didn’t as much as make the back page of the Wall Street Journal, I hear Hollywood is interested enough in the story so they’ve spoken to Brad Pitt to play “our friend up east.”

Who is He!

Since “our friend” goes unnamed in the several other Moore Perspectives with stories which mention him, there has been substantial speculation on who “our friend up east” is.  Presumably with all the players involved in the alleged scenario, this has got to be one powerful S.O.B.  Who could it be to wield such power?  It’s not Warren.  He’s “our friend from Omaha.”

Some came forward during this series of Perspectives and had the gall to suggest that I, the writer herein, was the powerful and mysterious “friend up east.”  They have also suggested that Brad Pitt is a good semblance of Marty, and would be perfect for the starring role in the movie, or TV miniseries.  Well, I’m obviously flattered but can I be the mysterious, unnamed “friend up east.”  As H. Ross Perot said, let’s go to the chalkboard to figure this out.

The first clue is that “our friend” has been paid by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to “advise them not to buy MH loans.”  That assertion is partially right.  I did advise Fannie Mae for a number of years on many matters MH, especially about retail chattel lending.  Other than informal, unpaid conversation, which we all have with others, I did not work for or with Freddie Mac.  Nice people and all, but I never did have that paid assignment there.  Too bad.

No Secret

Parenthetically, my assignment with Fannie Me was never secret, no attempt was made to hide it, by either side, and I always had the assignment on my resume on my web site.  So, if I am “our friend up east,” Mr. Moore, who writes that he uncovered that “our friend” was being paid to advise the two GSE’s “about MH paper,” that “secret” information was hiding in plain sight on my web site.  Best place to hide is in plain sight, they say.  And while I counseled caution in buying MH loans, based on MH loan portfolio experience, I never counseled anyone not to buy any loans, only those likely to cause alimentary canal back up.  But that doesn’t establish me as “our friend up east,” does it?

A second allegation is that “our friend” and the Clayton folks were dining together.”  Well, yes Kevin Clayton is a longtime friend of mine, I’ve dined with him contentedly many times, including once in D.C. when I went to the hopper late in the dinner and Kevin managed to convince me when I returned that I had lost in a game to determine who got the check for the night’s dinners.  Since it was a very large group with lots of big eaters and drinkers the tab was well over $1,000.00.  I’d have paid, but . . . . Kevin had the last laugh, he intended to pay all along and he did.  Good boy.

Global Heart Burn

I must admit I did have dinner one night in Omaha, Nebraska with the Clayton folks during the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.  Kevin had invited me out as a guest and I was invited to dinner by Keith Holdbrooks of Southern Energy Homes, a Clayton subsidiary, and a whole host of Clayton “Big Shots” were there.  What was discussed at the table that night?  The only memorable discussion I recall is that the table of 12 or 14 people all believed in the myth of man-made Global Warming, except OleMartyBoy, who tried to hold his ground.  With religious fervor the group accused me of my disbelief as though I was skeptical of the Immaculate Conception, an uncomfortable situation for all.   Since that 2008 dinner my vindication is nearer.  But still, every American has the right to an opinion, even an uninformed one, and there are plenty around these days.

So the “dining with Clayton folks” can’t be used against me, unless we were discussing how man-made Global Warming could be used to de-stabilize MH chattel lending.  Can it?  Some would have you believe it can and perhaps that explains the religious fervor at the table that night.

Conspiracy Theory

So why do I go on about this?  Certainly Mr. Moore is not the only MH figure to write about an industry conspiracy.  The estimable George F. Allen, one of MH’s brightest stars, has often brought up the possibility of a conspiracy.  And of course, the conspiracy always centers around Berkshire Hathaway and Clayton Homes.  Fleetwood, Palm Harbor and Oakwood go unmentioned.  The conclusion being that the reason Clayton Homes is the best of what’s left is conspiracy related.  The strong management there, excellent home lines, disciplined retail lending by two of their companies, and the fortuitousness of being owned by cash rich Berkshire Hathaway, apparently account for nothing.  Would or could Clayton Homes be brought down to Earth if their financial backing disappeared?  Perhaps.

And finally, yes I do live in the “east,” Burlington, Vermont, being far east and regrettably, far north.  But let’s go back to the chalkboard and look at facts, not conjecture.  Here are some of the various facts to be considered to explain the industry slide.

  1. The packages of chattel loans originated and sold into the ABS market from 1995 to 2003 are amongst the very worst loans of any type ever sold to investors.  If sub prime real estate is a problem, and it is, MH ABS paper is the Uber King-of-Sub Prime.  Investors are loath to touch these MH ABS offerings, to this day.
  2. While the industry has severe operating model deficiencies, little has been done by the industry to shore up these deficiencies.  Get the same liquidity to the industry it enjoyed in 1995-1999 and securitize these loans, and the result would still be bloody.  Far too little has changed to make much difference.  And investors not always being stupid, know this.
  3. The MH industry is not seen as important enough by government to subsidize its loan losses.  It has been prepared to do so with conventional housing, but not chattel MH lending.  Scream about it if you will, but that’s the way it is.

Subsidy Withdrawn

So, how much easier it is to cry conspiracy than to accept that from 1950 to 1998, when the music stopped, the success of the industry has constantly been subsidized by lenders?  When that subsidy was withdrawn in the late ‘90’s-early 2000’s, the industry tanked.  Yet, I still hear from many “it worked for 30 or 40 or 50 years.”  Worked for whom, I might ask?  It did not work for the lenders, so most have left.

This brings us to the present, with 2011 expecting between 40-50,000 new home shipments, a continuation of a slide of 90% since 1998.  This is serious, right?  Yet the industry response has been anything but serious.  Most industry response has centered around Washington, D.C. activity.  How’s that working for us?

The question for some would be how to return to the 1974-1995 trend line of about 240,000 new home shipments per year.  This avoids the 1969-1973 bulge, during which we averaged 477,000 home shipments per year, and the 1996-1999 period when we were over 300,000 homes.  You know the record since 1998.

Whence the Volume

Let’s look at this return to a much larger industry size for a moment.  One would think that given the facts we know, the 40-50,000 home shipments might be “where it’s at” into the future.  Baring any new flood of “loose” retail lending money, how do we get back to 250,000 homes annually, or even to the 2004-2007, 125,000 homes, give or take?  We can depend on FEMA for some homes, floods, disasters and hurricanes willing, but not too many.  The LLC’s would like to buy new homes, but their forays there with buy here – pay here have not created profit enthusiasm for this model.  Thus we can’t expect much new home volume there.  Retail chattel lending is very constricted, so retailers are unlikely to help with volume.

Title I, the former “great hope” has proven to be a volume dud, not surprisingly so.  Most non-Clayton retail lenders have to stay on the positive side of 700 FICO to survive.  Can’t look to them for much volume, eh?

The Berkshire Group goes deeper, but they ain’t Greenseco re-incarnate.  Only their disciplined lending and strong servicing culture and yes, experience, makes it all work.  They are not about to pump out $6.3 billion in MH loans as Conseco Finance did in one year around 2001-02.  I would guess if the two Berkshire lenders got to $2 billion combined annually that would be a wondrous job.  So even there, not too much excitement either.

This leaves real estate placements of HUD’s, a long cherished dream to go against the site built industry and whip their azz.  We know that isn’t about to happen, no matter how fervent our dreams.  New “easy” lenders coming to the rescue?  Perhaps.  Have you tried to finance anything in your personal life recently?  If you have you well know the absolute difficulty of any sort of success.  Add in our depreciating asset, the manufactured home, and generally scratch and dent credit capability for most of our buyers, and the hope of a new lender exploding on the scene seems demented.  But hey, we all live in hope.  Remember, Tarzan always said, as he went in and out of terrible scrapes, “Where there is life, there is hope.”  Amen.  Just don’t plan your entire business on the return of Conseco, CIT Group, The Associates, Green Point Credit and the others, though heaven knows their return could carry on long enough to shore up my retirement.

Regulatory Guillotines

Unaddressed yet are the new laws affecting lending and the new consumer agency.  I can only make one comment here.  When was the last time you encountered very complex lending laws, licensing requirements, and a super consumer agency which fueled a burst of sales activity for you?  In my time in the industry since 1972, I’ve seen none.  Perhaps the impact of many new laws, such as the very HUD code itself were overstated, but without the HUD we were shipping up to 580,000 homes per year.  Have you seen that many since in one year?

My best guess, and it is only an experienced guess, is that the industry will not be able to roll back the requirement that most industry transactions will come under the purview of one or more of these regulations, will control transactions, and will cause another reduction in HUD volume.  Even as the industry struggles with ways to avoid their prohibitions, the impact is most likely to be substantial.  I do surely hope I’m wrong.

And what will be the impact of LLC owners extending their own financing for the sale, or rent with option for homes in their communities?  Again, like everything, things not done during good times but becoming a fallback during bad times usually have warts on them.  Self-financing may well be a necessity, and I readily accept that.  If you have an LLC with substantial vacancy and the normal financing available will not fill it, one must save themselves, and self-financing, properly executed, can do that.  But, it does not speak to the substantial work and personnel necessary to make it work, the need for your own capital, the ever-decreasing used homes availability, the specter of violating some arcane lending law, and not least, a liquidity crunch which would drive one to try to cash out their loans and find there are no buyers or only buyers with a huge 80-90% haircut in value.  Some deal.  Pay attention here.

LLC Fallback

So one can’t help but think that as the LLC sector, perhaps the most vibrant and last to fall goes through a contraction in numbers, that only well-located communities with a value component to their offering will weather the storm.  It has been happening already, as the supply of used homes dries up, and new homes are found wanting for self-finance, the corn fields which became communities may be headed back to corn fields or for other use.  Wal-Mart, anyone?

If you struggled through reading my “Saving Chattel Lending” you had to ask yourself, “Can it be this hard, Marty?”  I surely ask myself the same question each time I prepare one of these papers.  If it’s going to be this hard, where does one start, and of the umpteen cures I recommend, which are the five most important?  Answer:  I don’t know.  Second answer:  Note that virtually none of my suggested measures have been tried.  The only change in the industry financing model, which is “the” defect, is that we’ve gone from “fogging a mirror” to 700 plus FICO, real credit capability, a completed application, full and adequate documentation and a belief the borrower is qualified in every way to get the loan and pay for the home successfully thereafter.  That is the quantum industry leap, which has occurred, and it certainly increases lender survivability, but has destroyed lender and industry new home volume.  Want to increase home sales volume?  Find a way to attract many more folks with better credit.  Stop building many new HUD code homes and selling them and what do you think the outcome will be for most industry segments?

So I come back to an industry conspiracy.  This all has to have happened because a mysterious, unnamed “friend up east” used his magical powers to convince some very large, knowledgeable lenders to quit MH chattel lending to throw all the volume to just a few special lenders.  Now if only that powerful friend can get SACU, Triad, and USBank to leave the industry, that will be the final step in the conspiracy.

Come Now

Speaking from atop the “Grassy Knoll,” I’d feel better if the industry might look at the known factors, which have brought the industry to its knees, and worked hard to Saving Chattel Lending.  Believing in “The Conspiracy” may let you off the hook of having to do anything, but will do nothing in resurrecting the industry.  It will take far more than conspiracy theory to do that.  # #

Martin V. (Marty) Lavin
attorney, consultant, expert witness
practice only in factory built housing
350 Main Street Suite 100
Burlington, Vermont 05401-3413
802-660-9911, 802-238-7777 cell
web site: www.martylavin.com
email mhlmvl@aol.com

Editor’s Note:  As with Mr. Lavin’s earlier articles, we have honored his request to post his article “as is.”  Read his other articles: