How to Invest in Mortgages for Total Returns (Not Speculation)

Buying whole mortgages is a complicated investment strategy that some asset managers are trying to make simpler

Mortgages are an enormous market, worth $9.4 trillion in 2013, but investing directly in them can be a challenge for homeowners and renters alike.

Residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) have some similar characteristics, but their structure and risk-reward profiles differ from whole mortgages, which are comprised of single residential or commercial mortgages issued by a lender but not securitized.

Another key difference between RMBS and whole mortgages is that a specific asset—a property—backs whole mortgages, says Bayard Closser, president of Vertical Capital Asset Management Group, in Irvine, Calif.

In addition, a lender can identify the borrower of a specific mortgage—it’s not an anonymous pooling arrangement. That’s important information for investors, Closser says.

“You have the ability to do very specific underwriting and analysis as to how good is the credit of the asset or of the borrower, how good is the collateral, in other words the value of the property,” he explained in an interview with ThinkAdvisor. “Then you can look at it and also do an evaluation of how much equity is in it based on what they owe and the value of the property.”

In other words, an investor can evaluate each property and borrower individually before deciding to buy a whole-mortgage note from the lender that made the original loan.

It’s a labor-intensive process, Closser notes. His firm, for instance does not have dozens of general analysts on staff, but it does have plenty of credit, underwriting and due diligence specialists. Vertical Capital Asset Management Group operates in 43 states, he adds, and uses local experts to evaluate specific properties.

Another complicating factor in whole-mortgage investing, he point out, is that mortgages are classified by payment status:

  1. performing (currently being paid with no missed payments);
  2. sub-performing (a 30-, 60- or 90-day late payment in the last 12 months);
  3. non-performing (120 days or more of non-payment); and
  4. foreclosure (note in default/action being taken).

The level of analysis and amount of capital required to build a diversified portfolio of whole mortgages can keep even wealthy investors out of the market.

Recognizing these hurdles as an opportunity, the firm launched its Vertical Capital Income Fund (VCAPX), about two years ago, to acquire whole-mortgage notes.

The fund invests primarily in performing notes and had roughly $58 million of assets at year-end 2013. It is structured as a closed-end interval fund.

That format allows Vertical to offer shares continuously while raising assets. Investors can tender shares and redeem funds quarterly during the fund-raising period.

The fund takes a value-investor approach to identifying potential acquisitions, Closser explains. 

“What we want to know is if the worst case scenario happened, that we had to foreclose and quickly sell the house, what’s that value?” he said. “That’s the value that we’re looking for.”

The group looks for short sales, foreclosures and distressed sales “to get the value of the property,” Closser adds. “We want to know that we’re below that number. And, that’s where we think that the difference between that number and what we paid for the asset is ultimately what we will recover.”

Here’s a hypothetical example of that valuation process from a white paper recently published by Vertical (“A New Highly Collateralized, Non-Correlative Asset Class).

The note had an original value of $100,000, a coupon of 5% and a current value of $90,000. Vertical Capital would seek to acquire the note for $65,000, an amount that would provide the value differential that Closser references.

The fund trades on NASDAQ with a minimum investment of $5,000; $1,000 for retirement accounts. As of Jan. 31, its one-year return was 6.76% (without the 4.5% sales load) with an SEC annual yield of 5.04%.

Although the fund is positioned as an income fund, between 65% and 70% of investors reinvest their dividends, indicating that current shareholders are using the fund for a total-return play, says Closser.

The fund makes sense for conservative investors seeking to diversify beyond the traditional income-oriented asset classes, he shares: “This gives them another unit of diversification…we can provide you an above average yield with a relative degree of principal security because of the assets that we’re investing in, (that are) not correlated to many other things.”

Though it is restricted liquidity, the fund does have some liquidity to it, the executive points out. “So, it fits in there very nicely to help people raise the income on their portfolio,” he said.

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