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The Mortgage Mess Spreads

The subprime lending industry is getting hammered, and hedge funds and investment banks are feeling the pain

The canaries in the coal mine are keeling over fast. After years of easy profits, the $1.3 trillion subprime mortgage industry has taken a violent turn: At least 25 subprime lenders, which issue mortgages to borrowers with poor credit histories, have exited the business, declared bankruptcy, announced significant losses, or put themselves up for sale. And that's just in the past few months.

Now there's evidence that the pain is spreading to a broad swath of hedge funds, commercial banks, and investment banks that buy, sell, repackage, and invest in risky subprime loans. According to Jim Grant of Grant's Interest Rate Observer, the market is starting to wake up to the magnitude of the problem, entering what he calls the "recognition stage." Says Terry Wakefield, head of the Wakefield Co., a mortgage industry consulting firm: "This is going to be a meltdown of unparalleled proportions. Billions will be lost."