American Home Mortgage has filed for bankruptcy in the latest sign the US housing crisis is spreading from sub-prime mortgages to the higher grades of credit risk.
The collapse of America's 10th biggest home lender came amid fresh gyrations on global bond and stock markets yesterday, and growing questions over the exposure of European banks and insurers to the US property slump. Credit Suisse warned that 1.5m people were likely to default on home loans worth up to $220bn (£108bn) as a huge tranche of mortgages are adjusted upwards over the next 18 months. AHM, which issued $60bn of loans last year, asked for Chapter 11 protection from creditors and began laying off almost all of its 7,400 employees after banks abruptly cut off access to credit.
It cited a "sudden adverse impact on liquidity from the extraordinary disruptions now occurring in the secondary mortgage and real estate markets". Unlike the other 50-odd sub-prime lenders that have gone bankrupt or closed since late 2006, AHM specialised in "Alt-A" loans for mid-tier borrowers thought to be a good credit risk. The company said yesterday that the market for Alt-A debt packaged as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) had completely dried up, making it impossible to continue normal business.
While outstanding level sub-prime debt in the market is roughly $800bn, the Alt-A segment is a close second at $700bn, mostly issued in 2005 and 2006. The rating agency Moody's said Alt-A loans are in reality little better than sub-prime debt, which already faces a default rate of 12.4pc.
Merrill Lynch said the property slump was now so serious the Federal Reserve would have to start cutting interest rates as soon as October, predicting a fall from 5.25pc to 3.75pc by the middle of next year. The steady drip-drip of bad news from the US continued to irk Europe's bond markets yesterday. The iTraxx Crossover index measuring spreads on low-grade corporate bonds surged from 400 to 430, before falling back as Wall Street rebounded from last week's violent sell-off.
Suki Mann, a credit analyst at Societe Generale, said virtually all refinancings and leveraged buyouts had been frozen as investors stood on the sidelines. "Everything is on hold. We're not going to see any deals done until there is some clarity." The Dow Jones rose 73 points to 13,225 in early trading as markets began to settle after the resignation of Bear Stearns co-president Warren Spector, who stepped down on Sunday after the collapse of two in-house hedge funds that set off the global bond bust two months ago.
The group's chief financial officer, Sam Molinari, alarmed Wall Street late on Friday by comparing the credit debacle to the dotcom denouement in 2001 and even the 1987 crash. "I have been a mortgage banker for 20 years and have never seen such a severe reaction to credit risks in the marketplace, and things may even get worse before they get better," he said.
Similar fears have begun to emerge in Germany where Jochen Sanio, head of the financial watchdog Bafin, said the credit squeeze threatened Europe with the most serious banking crisis since 1931.
IKB Deutsche Industriebank stunned the markets last week with an admission that it had taken a massive $24bn bet on the US property market without fully informing the board, and suddenly faced imminent collapse. Just 10 days earlier it had claimed to be in rude good health.IKB is being rescued by a consortium of banks offering a \u20AC3.5bn (£2.4bn) credit line, while the state-owned KfW bank has provided an \u20AC8bn guarantee for bad debts. The bail-out, orchestrated by the German government, is facing a Brussels probe for alleged violation of EU state aid rules.
Dresdner Bank yesterday admitted to $1.4bn in US sub-prime exposure, but said it was well cushioned by business at home. Germany's Union Investment has had to freeze redemptions from an $1.1bn fund invested in sub-prime loans, and even the Pharmacist and Doctors' Bank admitted $115bn in exposure.In France, Oddo & Cie is to close three funds making huge losses in sub-prime CDOs, saying it had been "caught out by the sub-prime dilemma". Insurance group AXA has closed two funds hit by the credit turmoil after a rash of redemptions in July.