The crises at Mercury Finance Co. and Jayhawk Acceptance Corp. are stirring fears that lenders may start abandoning voluntary support of the asset-backed securities they sell on Wall Street.
So far, high-profile lenders have stood by the $360 billion of securities that were packaged from their home equity, auto, and credit card loans. Indeed, executives at First Chicago NBD Corp., First Union Corp., and Mercantile Bancorp. said that in the past year they have bought back badly performing loans or added higher-quality assets or premiums to improve pool performance.
But concern is rising that marginal lenders could be more reluctant to prop up their loan pools, casting a pall on the whole market.
"It is likely that some (lenders) faced with deteriorating asset pools will not support their transactions in the future," said Andrew Silver, a managing director with Moody's Investors Service.
The cost of assisting these pools could become too great, Mr. Silver said. And, in a domino effect, the stigma of not supporting loans could disappear as more lenders decide to pull away, he said.
Without the voluntary assistance, some securities would likely face downgrades or defaults, costing investors million of dollars.
The prospect of causing such upheaval is enough incentive for most, but not all, lenders to keep up the support, experts said.
"When push comes to shove, some people will care more about their name in the market than others do," said William G. Ferrell, chief executive of Ferrell Capital Management, a Greenwich, Conn., trading firm.
If some lenders do back away, it won't be the first time the industry has shied away from providing more assistance than is contractually required, experts said.
In the early 1980s, lenders frequently shored up mortgage loan pools to counter deteriorating credit quality. But by the end of the decade, many decided the costs of trying to offset declining performance exceeded the benefits, Mr. Silver said. As a result, there are now frequent instances of downgrades because of deteriorating performance of mortgage securities.
Now, attention is turning toward the asset-backed market, following the difficulties at Mercury and Jayhawk, which both ran into financial troubles this month. These companies are part of a lending industry that replenishes its capital by issuing commercial paper or securitizing loans on Wall Street.
The business has grown dramatically in recent years without suffering a major setback. With a few exceptions, the securitized products have avoided defaults, downgrades, or writedowns because of deteriorating loan quality, according to credit rating agencies.
But there is no sure way of knowing exactly when credit-quality problems may surface, experts said.
That's because investors-along with credit agencies and insurers that back securitized pools-must rely largely on information that diverse lenders supply.
No system "goes to the heart of whether that data is accurate," said Gary J. Kopff, president of Heritage Management, Washington.
In other words, investors lack the ability "to go in and audit every loan back to its origination point," Mr. Kopff said.
Some lenders are already seeking to separate themselves from the industry's credit-quality problems by setting up their own securitization companies. This will allow them to keep closer tabs on the loans once they've gone to Wall Street.
The reasoning is that in-house conduits will serve as reputation builders-in effect as brand names-allowing loan pools to stand out from a pack of generic assets that could soon become tarnished. "It puts our name out there," said James Rohr, president of PNC Bank Corp., in a recent interview.