Goldman Closes the Door on Subprime

When Goldman Sachs (GS) bought Litton Loan Servicing, a firm that collects mortgage payments from homeowners, in 2007 for an unannounced price, it seemed like a simple way to get an on-the-ground view of the subprime market. The insight would help Goldman Sachs figure out how much to pay for loans, and Litton would work with borrowers to get them back on track. Other sophisticated investors, including billionaire Wilbur L. Ross and private equity firm Centerbridge Capital Partners, bought mortgage servicers with a similar strategy in mind.

It didn't work out as planned. While there were plenty of distressed mortgages and lots of eager buyers, the loan holders had little incentive to mark down prices because that would mean taking a big loss on their books. "The distressed-asset market never got as hot as people were hoping it would," says Dean H. DeMeritte, an executive vice-president at Phoenix Capital, a Denver brokerage for mortgage servicing contracts.

On June 6, Goldman Sachs agreed to sell Litton to another mortgage servicer, Ocwen Financial (OCN), for $263.7 million. The sale comes two months after Goldman Sachs wrote down the value of the business by about $200 million. "It really makes sense for them to sell it," says David B. Hilder, an analyst at Susquehanna Financial Group. "They bought it at a time when the business was easier, and it looked like there might be some insights to be gained in the mortgage market from having a servicer." Neither Goldman Sachs nor Litton would comment.

Founded in 1988 by Larry B. Litton Sr. in Houston, Litton was one of the first mortgage servicers to specialize in working with troubled loans, sometimes called "scratch and dent" servicing. It developed that skill during the savings and loan crisis, when it was hired by Resolution Trust Corp. to handle mortgages that were orphaned by failed banks.

Larry Litton Jr., who now runs the company, is known in the industry for his Texas drawl, straight talk, and vocal support for working with struggling borrowers before they get too far behind. Bruce A. Gottschall, the founder of Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, a nonprofit that worked with Litton a decade ago, says the company "seemed to me a little bit more flexible in terms of modifications early on." Litton Jr. currently is a member of the Federal Reserve's Consumer Advisory Council, where he has been vocal about foreclosure prevention. Ocwen would not comment on whether he will stay with the company after the sale.

Litton's business grew with the subprime market. In 1995 it serviced $1.2 billion in loans, according to Fitch Ratings. By 2007 its portfolio had ballooned to almost $54 billion; it's about $41.2 billion today. As the boom gave way to the bust, Litton was forced to hire more staff to deal with rising defaults. The company became the target of class actions alleging excessive fees and violations of consumer-protection laws as well as investigations by state and federal regulators. It has agreed to settle at least one of the lawsuits while denying liability; others are pending. It says it is cooperating with government investigations. Goldman Sachs will remain liable for fines and penalties that could be imposed by government authorities relating to Litton's foreclosure and servicing practices before the deal closes.

With the Litton sale, Goldman Sachs will no longer deal directly with homeowners. Gottschall says Goldman's unloading the mortgage servicer is part of a bigger trend: "Wall Street is probably trying to distance themselves from the problems they caused."

The bottom line: By selling Litton Loan Servicing, Goldman Sachs is out of the messy business of working with distressed homeowners.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.