Now that amendments to the rules for valuing mortgage servicing rights are on the verge of adoption, portfolio lenders and their associations are turning to another sticky accounting problem.
The difficulty is how to account for transactions in which lenders swap mortgages for mortgage-backed securities to hold in their own portfolios.
The Financial Accounting Standards Board wanted banks, thrifts, and others to record such a deal as a sale and purchase that could result in a profit or a loss. But it gave the industry a temporary reprieve last month.
Now, the board is expected to revive the sale-and-purchase approach, and lender groups intend to oppose the rule.
Banks and thrifts could end up with servicing rights on their books under the revived amendment. This means an accounting burden and possible earnings volatility with which these institutions have not previously had to deal.
Meanwhile, North American Mortgage Co. may be the first to benefit from the amended rules. It announced last week that it would briefly postpone issuing its quarterly earnings in the hope that it would be able to use the new rules in its report.
Unlike other top mortgage banking companies, North American has not been active in the wholesale market, so its servicing portfolio consists almost entirely of originated rights, and it has very large asset values that do not now appear on the balance sheet.
Thus, the Santa Rosa, Calif., company should be able to report significantly stronger earnings under the new rules than without them.
Terrance Hodel, president, wrote in North American's annual report that thrifts and companies owned by commercial banks had an edge in the marketplace last year.
"As depository institutions," he wrote, "these originators can hold their loans in portfolio and not recognize the loss on sale that independent mortgage companies would when they sell the loans after originating them."
Now the tables have turned, and North American is in line to benefit from the newly leveled playing field.
A spokesman said North American might have to issue its earnings statement under the old rules if the formal FASB statement is delayed, then amend its report later.
At least one observer, though, is unhappy about the board's last-minute decision to require companies to measure declines in the value of chosen segments of their portfolios without offsetting the declines with gains in other segments.
Michael A. Corasaniti, who follows the mortgage banking business for Alex. Brown & Sons, New York, said the basic principal that FASB follows for marking securities portfolios to market - offsetting declines with increases - would provide "an accurate depiction of the economics of the business."
"Servicing rights basically are a form of interest-only strip bonds," he argued. "We do not understand why the FASB has such difficulty with the treatment of servicing rights. In effect, a servicing portfolio is just a bond portfolio."
He added: "If this iteration of FAS 65 is enacted, the only true beneficiaries of the new statement are likely to be research analysts such as ourselves."