The growing problems surrounding option adjustable-rate mortgages (Option ARMs) are a concern I have previously noted (here). But it now appears that the problems may be far worse even than previously feared. These problems not only represent a growing threat to borrowers and lenders alike, but the also present the increasing likelihood for further shareholder litigation.

According to a January 30, 2009 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Option ARMs See Rising Defaults” (here), nearly $750 billion in Option ARMs were issued from 2004 to 2007. Unfortunately, as of December 2008, 28% of Option ARMs were in default or foreclosure, and an additional 7% involved properties that have already been take back by lenders. A chart accompanying the Journal article shows that the Option ARM default rate is already far greater now than was the subprime default rate at the beginning of 2008.

Borrowers holding Option ARM mortgages now find themselves having to play a particularly unattractive hand. In particular, as a result of the way these loans are structured, borrowers that have been paying only the minimum have likely seen their principal amount due increase as a result of so-called “negative amortization.”

At the same time, housing values around the country have declined. The Journal article reports that more than 55% of borrowers with Option ARMs owe more than the current value of their homes.

Think that sounds bad? Things are about to get worse. A lot worse.

As detailed in a lengthy January 4, 2009 post on the Seeking Alpha blog (here), the interest rates on billions of dollars are due to reset in 2009 and 2010. The problems that likely will ensue “are expected to be more pronounced than the subprime crisis since the economy is already nearing its trough, the consumer confidence has slumped to an all time recent history low and financial markets are in a gridlock.”

In explaining why the problems associated with the Option ARM resets could be so bad, the Seeking Alpha blog post goes through a detailed analysis of the timing and likely magnitude of the resets. In explaining the problems that could follow, the author notes:

The potential average payment increase on the loans recast is 63%, representing an additional $1,053 due each month on top of the current average payment of $1,672. These large payment increases could cause delinquencies to increase, and increase dramatically, after the recast. The fact that only 65% of borrowers have elected (or are able) to make only minimum payments underscores the magnitude of the potential problem. The potential payment shock combined with the continuous deteriorating outlook for home prices and lack of refinancing opportunities could be a negative cause of concern for investors in Option ARM securities. Even more ominous, is pall cast upon the banks that hold these assets and are additionally exposed to other forms of consumer credit, ie. HELOCs, credit card debt and other unsecured loans.

As a result of these problems and possibilities, sources quoted in the Journal article estimate that more than half of all option ARMs outstanding will default, and that nearly 61% of options ARMs originated in 2007 will eventually default.

These looming problems not only represent a threat to borrowers, investors and lenders, but they also present the possibility for even further litigation.

Problems arising from Option ARM mortgages have already been the source of considerable securities litigation. The most recent lawsuit involves Triad Guaranty, which provides private mortgage insurance products to residential mortgage lenders and investors in the United States.

As reflected in their January 29, 2009 press release (here), plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Middle District of North Carolina against Triad and certain of its directors and officers. According to the press release, the complaint (which can be found here), alleges that

beginning in late August 2007 and continuing throughout 2008, Triad began to acknowledge serious issues surrounding its exposure to anticipated losses and defaults related to its book of business for its Alt-A and pay-option adjustable rate mortgage (“ARM”) products written in 2006 and 2007 due to a failure to engage in proper underwriting practices, resulting in a decline in Triad’s stock price. Then, on November 10, 2008, Triad issued its financial results for the third quarter of 2008, reporting a net loss for the quarter ended September 30, 2008 of $160.1 million. On this news, Triad’s stock price dropped $0.11 per share to close at $0.70 per share on November 11, 2008.

The complaint further alleges that the defendants concealed from the investing public that:

(a) the Company was not adequately accounting for its loss reserves in violation of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, causing its financial results to be materially misstated; (b) the Company failed to engage in proper underwriting practices for its book of business related to insurance written in 2006 and 2007, including the insurance related to its Alt-A and pay-option ARM products; (c) the Company had far greater exposure to anticipated losses and defaults related to its book of business related to insurance written in 2006 and 2007, including its Alt-A and pay-option ARM portfolios, than it had previously disclosed; (d) the Company lacked effective internal controls to detect fraud and misrepresentations in the underwriting process; and (e) the Company failed to disclose the true risks associated with its ability to continue to write new business and, given rating downgrades and capital limitations, the Company would be forced to liquidate its Canadian subsidiary and stop writing new insurance policies and transition the business to run-off.

Even before this recent lawsuit was filed against Triad, there had already been a number of securities lawsuits raising allegations concerning Option ARMs, including for example cases filed against Wachovia (refer here), Washington Mutual (refer here) and Downey Financial (refer here).

All of those prior lawsuits involved either companies that issued the Option ARMs or the issuers’ successors in interest. Triad, by contrast, is not an issuer but rather is a mortgage insurer. Triad’s involvement in a securities lawsuit raising Option ARM-related allegations highlights the potential for extensive further litigation, involving not just the issuers themselves but other types of companies as well.

I have in any event added Triad to my running tally of subprime and credit crisis-related securities litigation, which can be accessed here. With the addition of the Triad lawsuit, the current tally of subprime and credit crisis related securities litigation filed during the period 2007 through 2009 now stands at 150, of which eight have been filed in 2009. A spreadsheet reflecting the 2009 lawsuits can be found here.